The Press Under Fire

More Journalists Died On the Job Last Year Than Ever Before in History

On May 20th, 2007, Ali Khalil left the house of one of his relatives in south Baghdad. One hour later, police found the body of the 22- year-old Iraqi reporter, allegedly killed because of quoting parliamentarians who had called for the extermination of members of an armed group. It was one more death to be added to the approximately 177 journalists who have died since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to UNESCO’s freedom of expression division.

Journalists are messengers. They are the ones who stand between the source of the information and the receiver. Beyond the abstractions communications theory, journalists are literally caught in the middle of a drama between the actors, heroes and antiheroes. But who’s who? Everyone should read and analyze in order to make their own informed decision.

However, in Iraq, journalists are caught in the crossfire between zealous armed forces trying to regulate the information going out to the West, a crumbling Iraqi government and the deadly militias who scare off editors by increasing the carnage, thus lowering even further the minimum of security for their correspondents.

On Apr. 8th, 2003, Baghdad’s Palestine hotel was full of reporters. A U.S. tank shelled the 15th floor, killing Spaniard José Couso, from channel Tele 5, and Ukranian Taras Protsyuk, a reporter for Reuters. This happened during an official period of conflict. Now, the current situation in Iraq seems to be changing the positive connotation of the word “reconstruction” as it is much worse than the official war.

As the American troops are increasingly seen to be losing the war against the big enemy, they seem to be channeling their frustration into bullying the smaller enemy – the media. While the number of troops is increasing, the number of journalists is decreasing, reported The New York Times on May 29, and not simply because of the daily attacks, but because of paranoia within the US army. A new set of US army rules to regulate the media have even resulted in Iraqi policemen firing at journalists trying to report on an attack.

Paranoia is not exclusive to Iraq. In Latin America, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been under observation of international organizations because of his high-intensity bashing at the country’s private media. A set of restrictive laws has muzzled reporting, and in his latest whim, he has shut down RCTV broadcasting network, arguing it’s director didn’t deserve the concession because he allegedly conspired with the opposition as well as the owner of Globovisión, another private network, to remove Chavez from power in 2003.

A hundred reporters were killed in 2006; making it the “most brutal year in the history of modern journalism,” according to the Vienna-based International Press Institute. Iraq is at the top of the list with 46 deaths, while “Afghanistan, Pakistan, Philippines, Mexico and Sri Lanka also added to the list,” wrote IPI in its annual report.

Because media is mostly used as a soft weapon, it is capable of removing unlawful public officials, denouncing human rights violations as it did in Rwanda, or showing the futility of an administration’s policies. Skeptics and critics of the social value of the media say they are like vultures profiting from human misery.

This leaves only one simple question in reply: Do they really think that the profit from a single story sold, from a salary or a promotion or the adrenaline of a deadline, equal to the value of one’s own life?

It seems obvious that this is not the kind of calculation made by the reporters who willingly report in conflict regions, where the biggest stake is not the “I,” but accepting the responsibility to report on the life, and often death, of the “others” who have neither the weapons of war nor those of words.

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