Iraq Despatches Need a Health Warning
Omaar, Rageh, New Statesman (1996)
There are many ways to chart the inexorable and bloody collapse of Iraq in the three years since the regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Yet as the tragedy in Iraq has unfolded, one thing has not changed. Reporters and news organisations courageously and rightly continue to maintain a presence in the Iraqi capital, while their ability to provide a comprehensive eyewitness account of events has lessened with every month that has passed since the fall of Baghdad.
Before the war, BBC despatches from Baghdad were prefaced by a health warning: "Our correspondent's report has been monitored by the Iraqi authorities." It is my personal belief that reports coming out of Baghdad now should be preceded by the words: "Because of the violence and instability in Iraq, the movement of our correspondents is severely restricted." By not doing this, we fail to admit the fundamental fact faced by the western news organisations that continue to report from Iraq: it is impossible for their reporters to travel freely enough around Baghdad and its environs to provide a full picture of the war from all sides. I have yet to meet any western colleague returned from the city who doesn't feel this is the case.
This is not an argument about whether journalists should remain in Baghdad. Of course they should, and I am thankful that there are colleagues prepared to do so. Neither is this a grotesque accusation against friends and colleagues about their work or bravery. It is a call for us and our organisations to describe to our audiences clearly and honestly how the chaotic and violent circumstances in Iraq are damaging our ability to be their eyes and ears in all areas. Iraq continues to be the most politically divisive and consequential issue in the world. If we have to report from the heart of it with one hand tied behind our backs, shouldn't our audiences (in Iraq as well as Britain) be told?
Although journalists have moved out of the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad, this has not changed the degree of armed protection and numbers of security guards needed by virtually all TV reporters who now live on the opposite bank of the River Tigris. The street in which a number of major news organisations have their permanent Baghdad bureaux (which used to be a normal residential road) has been barricaded at either end by fortifications and armed guards and is closed to all normal traffic. …