Forces of Gatekeeping and Journalists' Perceptions of Physical Danger in Post-Saddam Hussein's Iraq

Article excerpt

Iraqi journalists operate in one of the deadliest newsgathering environments in the world. This study, based on a survey of 404 Iraqi journalists, examines the variables influencing journalists' perceptions of physical danger in covering news after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Gatekeeping theory provides a prism to identify and explicate different levels of influence. News organization size, financial support (state, partisan, or private), gender, journalism experience, journalists' perception of their impact on political affairs, journalists' outlook, and size of cities in which journalists operate are significant variables shaping journalists' perception of physical danger.

In October 2009, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Iraq as the deadliest country for journalists for the six consecutive years since 2003. The number of journalists killed in Iraq over the six-year-period since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 until October 2009 was 139,1 the heaviest toll in a single war or conflict. Among the 139 slain journalists, 117 were Iraqis. CPJ also listed Iraq as top on the list of "fourteen nations where journalists are slain and killers go free."2 Many of the deaths were due to reprisal attacks after journalists published or broadcast stories critical of certain groups and /or individuals. Iraqi insurgents and gunmen also threatened and killed Iraqi journalists for their professional affiliations with Western news media or the journalists' sectarian orientations that mainly centered on tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites.

This study seeks to examine the physical threats faced by Iraqi journalists, and the relationships between their perceptions and forces such as individual, journalistic routines, organizational, and societal variables. The number of murdered journalists (and media workers, including fixers and translators) surged as the Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence escalated between 2006 and 2007, and as Western news media, with their rotating correspondents unable to speak Arabic, increasingly depended on Iraqi freelance journalists, stringers, and translators.3 Although an opinion poll conducted by foreign broadcasters4 in 2008 indicated an improved security situation in and around Baghdad and the surrounding Anbar province after the U.S. military surge, security still remained as one of the most serious problems at the time of this study.

Physical Danger under Political Turmoil

Attacks on journalists were prevalent in the post-Cold War era in Eastern Europe and Russia. Becker,5 in a study of press freedom in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, suggested that the Russian press can best be understood as a neo-authoritarian media system in which journalists who reported stories critical of the government were detained and sent to psychiatric institutions. The CPJ documented that fifty-two journalists were killed in Russia since 1992.6 A report from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe7 listed Azerbaijan, Russia, and Ukraine as the three states in which journalists faced extreme physical threats, not only when they report on armed conflict, but also when they cover corruption, financial crime, the drug trade, terrorism, or ethnic conflict. Few who attack journalists are brought to justice, raising suspicions about judicial independence and the extent of the authorities' desire to unearth the truth.8

In Latin America, political upheaval and turmoil not only forced journalists to confront legal restrictions and political persecution, but also put the journalists at risk of physical intimidation and targeted killings. In Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Argentina, journalists have been subject to beating, kidnapping, or murder by repressive governments, leftist guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and drug cartels for the last three decades. Lavieri9 argued that Argentinian journalists exercised self-censorship out of fear of reprisal from the government and powerful private enterprises until the early 1990s. …