Risky Business: The Dangers in Iraq Have Led Western Journalists to Alter Their Appearances, Rely More Heavily on Iraqi Staffers and, Simply, to Not Venture Too Far from the Hotel

By Freeman, Colin | American Journalism Review, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Risky Business: The Dangers in Iraq Have Led Western Journalists to Alter Their Appearances, Rely More Heavily on Iraqi Staffers and, Simply, to Not Venture Too Far from the Hotel


Freeman, Colin, American Journalism Review


As we left the hotel one morning, my translator, Nassi, lifted his shirt and quietly gestured to the silver chrome glinting at his waistband. Tucked beside his new mobile phone was his Czech-made 9 mm pistol, bought for $200 in one of Baghdad's many illicit gun markets. "From now on, we carry this all the time, right?" he said, glowering at unseen foes on the street ahead. If anyone messes with us, he said, they're dead.

In the past I've always made him leave it at home--ethically, it's dodgy, and practically, it's useless, because in Iraq, anybody not in a U.S. Army tank is easily outgunned. But since our trip to Basra in May, it has become a lot more difficult to persuade him. That was when Nassi and I nearly lost our lives while attending a prayer meeting for militiamen followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It seemed reasonably safe at the time--we had a written invite from the sheik leading the prayers, and most of the worshippers gave us not so much as a second glance. Then, as we left, one man fired a .22-caliber pistol into the ground right behind us, screaming "British spies."

The ricochet blast caught me right in the backside, leaving me dancing around in pain as blood seeped through the back of my trousers. Seconds later, what looked like my own private "Mogadishu moment" was in full swing, as I was half-nelsoned against a wall, searched and frog-marched off through a sea of hostile faces, taking the occasional punch. Just as it seemed I was about to provide a nearby Arab TV crew with a world exclusive of a live execution of a Westerner, Nassi turned up in a car with the sheik's deputy, whom by some miracle he'd managed to find in the crowd. They bundled me in and drove off at high speed. Later, in a British Army field hospital, I learned that what I thought was just powder burn from the ricochet was in fact the bullet itself. An X-ray showed it lodged just a hair's breadth from my pelvis.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I am one of the lucky ones. The bullet dug out of my backside is now a proud souvenir. "My terror at the hands of Shiite militiamen" made several good first-person pieces. And the uncensored version--including the bit where an Army surgeon asked if he could photograph my butt for a gunshot wound lecture--causes much mirth among colleagues.

But other tales doing the rounds in the Baghdad hotel bar recently have no such happy ending. A week after I was attacked, two Japanese journalists were killed as they drove through Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, their car wiped out by a rocket-propelled grenade. Two Polish journalists died in a similar strike there three weeks before. As the insurgency escalated in April and May, other colleagues similarly filled their reports with tales of being kidnapped and threatened or dodging bullets--in the case of Iraqi journalists, often from increasingly nervous coalition troops.

Nobody really knows why reporters have suddenly become fair game. Some blame the "gloves off" nature of post-September 11 conflict, pointing out that those who will happily car bomb the Red Cross have no qualms about killing the odd hack. Others suspect that with the growth of Arab media such as Al Jazeera, Western journalists are no longer the only means for insurgents to publicize their causes. Either way, as one colleague recently muttered darkly, it has gotten to the point where those who haven't had a direct brush with death feel distinctly left out. They can console themselves with the fact that in a survey this spring by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iraq tops the list of the 10 most dangerous countries in which to work.

Those journalists who haven't already pulled out are responding in different ways. Some, particularly the TV crews who have thousands of pounds of equipment worth stealing, are fighting fire with fire. Ex-military security men whose job is simply to "advise" are packing guns, and in several cases have killed attackers in self-defense.

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