Middle East

Freedom of press in Iraq comes at terrible cost

In Iraq, 230 media workers have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, Reporters Without Borders say. Since their report came out on Tuesday, two more journalists have been murdered.

The figure includes a number of foreign reporters, but the overwhelming majority of journalists who are targeted are Iraqis, who continue to do their jobs despite huge risks, says the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Baghdad.

Image caption Riad al-Saray's programmes tackled Iraqi politics and religion

The mourning ceremony was held at the local governor's office.

Friends, family and colleagues sat in rows, as a singer recited verses from the Koran, the men running prayer beads through their fingers.

They had come together to remember the life of Riad al-Saray, journalist and broadcaster, killed on 7 September 2010.

In Iraq's ongoing conflict, journalists have become targets for extremists, insurgents and militia groups. The threat of sudden and violent death comes with the job, and the news of Riad's murder was met with shock tempered by resignation, grief mixed with a sense of the inevitable.

"He was like a brother to me," said Shada al-Obaidi, a colleague.

"I don't know why they killed him. He is a good person. They killed him because he is a journalist, because he worked in the media? We don't know. We ask many questions."

Riad was shot dead in the street by men using silenced guns as he was on his way home from the TV station where he worked. His family - he had a wife and three young children - buried him in the holy city of Najaf that same day.

Investigation call

Riad was a high-profile presenter at Iraqiya, the state-run broadcaster. His programmes tackled politics and religion.

In the studios where he used to work, two days after his death, colleagues mechanically went through the motions of preparing for the evening's show.

"Maybe because he was on TV all the time?" said Manhal al-Munshadi, struggling to make sense of the killing.

Manhal and Riad lived in the same neighbourhood. They used to travel to work together.

"This made him a target, because he was the voice of patriotism. He always tried to represent all Iraqis in his programmes. He hated sectarianism and racism."

At Iraqiya TV, they say they have lost more than 20 colleagues in the past seven years, more than any other single Iraqi media outlet. But they are not the only ones to be targeted.

A day after Riad's killing, another TV journalist, Safah Abdul Hameed, was murdered in the northern city of Mosul. Like Riad, he was specifically targeted by gunmen.

Many of those have been killed by crossfire, or in bombings that were not specifically targeted at journalists. But many others, like Riad, have been murdered. And nearly all those murders have gone unpunished.

"I do not expect that the government will investigate," said Bashar al-Mandalawi, from Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, a local organisation campaigning for the rights of media workers.

"It is necessary to open these case, and do an investigation."

Defending freedom of speech

But in Iraq, bombings and shootings have become a daily tragedy, one which people have come to expect.

Image caption Omar al-Jabouri (right) says he has no plans to leave journalism

Omar al-Jabouri works for another station, al-Rasheed TV. He is lucky to be alive. In April this year, a magnetic bomb was placed underneath the driver's seat of his car. It exploded as he was on his way to work.

"I found myself lying in the street. I couldn't work out what had happened. But when I saw one of my legs in the car and another lying in the road, I understood. I put my hand on whatever was left of my leg. I took off my belt and wrapped it around my leg."

The attack happened near a checkpoint. Omar frantically waved to one of the policemen for help.

"He was in a state of shock himself, he couldn't believe what was happening," Omar said.

"He was thinking maybe I was a suicide bomber. Finally he came to me with a couple of other men. They put me in a car and drove me to hospital. There was a moment that I will never forget. I felt I was dying."

Omar survived and is now back at work. But he is confined to a wheelchair, both legs amputated above the knee. Despite what happened, he says he has no thoughts of leaving journalism for a safer occupation.

"I believe in what I do. I didn't fall into journalism by chance. I'm a journalist to the core. I love my job, and I will always defend freedom of speech."

Freedom of the press is a relatively new concept in Iraq. At the moment, it is a freedom that comes at a terrible cost.

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