By Mustafa Sa’adoun
Date: Dec. 21, 2016
As soldiers ducked for cover from flying bullets, south of Mosul, Iraqi Alsumaria TV war photographer, Ali Resan, stayed upright looking for a good angle from which to film the heated battle. Seconds later, with no armor or helmet and directly in the line of fire, he was killed by an ISIS sniper.
According to fellow war correspondent Ali Al Musawi, Resan could have survived if he had been wearing an armored vest which would have covered his heart and abdomen.
Ali Jabar, another war correspondent, disagrees. Either way, a war correspondent is exposed, as the armored vests they are issued are cheap and easily penetrable, compared to those worn by their peers at international media organizations. Jabar says his vest had a hole in it and dreads thinking of the fate of the person who wore it before him.
At the end of October 2016, the night before Jabar was due to cover the battles in Mosul, he called his writer to inform him that he had decided to leave his vest at home and depend on divine intervention. One of Jabar’s peers said the channel they worked for did not train Jabar on the importance of wearing a protective vest and failed to provide him with a functioning vest.
Divine intervention appears to be the only thing protecting journalists in Iraq these days. Most are amateur reporters pushed by their media institutions to the front lines between the Iraqi armed forces and ISIS without training on how to deal with risks, let alone reliable protective vests.
The Iraqi Journalists Syndicate and other organizations responsible for journalists’ safety fail to take precautions.
Since ISIS took over Mosul on June 10, 2014, the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate and the Journalists Freedom Observatory’s figures show that 13 journalists have been killed and 44 injured. By comparison, none of the 500 foreign and Arab journalists who arrived in Iraq since the summer of 2014 have been killed. They are better trained and equipped.
The manager of Alsumaria Channel, Amar Talal, admits that the vest Ali Resan wore was heavy and that he took it off minutes before the sniper shot him. Talal insists that health and safety is a priority for his organization and that the crew are given the “most advanced vests and helmets.” He says the channel enforces this policy.
Despite what Talal says, all of Alsumaria’s live and recorded coverage from the front lines in Mosul to date, show war correspondent, Mustafa Latif without an armored vest. Latif is also seen replacing the helmet with a khaki cap.
Latif justified his actions by saying that the vest and helmet are “heavy and annoying” and restrict the movement of journalists and camera crews in the thick of a battle. Latif miraculously survived death while his cameraman lost three fingers when ISIS ambushed them in Hay Al Karama, a Mosul suburb where heated battles still continue between the Iraqi armed forces and ISIS.
A correspondent for the state-run Al Iraqiya channel, Ali Jawad, remembers a close call during the battles of Salahuddin in late 2014. Had the ISIS sniper raised his muzzle only a few centimeters, the bullet would have penetrated his protective vest and killed him instantly.
Jawad knew that the vest did not him protect from bullets and shrapnel compared to vests foreign media channels provide to their war correspondents, that each cost between $700 and $1,200.
Jawad’s vest was the same as his four peers. They ran an experiment with the aid of this writer and the Journalists Freedom Observatory. Each vest was fired at from 50 meters with a pistol. The bullets penetrated each of their four vests, but not the one belonging to a fifth Iraqi journalist who worked for an international news agency.
The problem begins with hiring. Most Iraqi media institutions, private and state-run, attract young eager reporters. They make them war correspondents without the appropriate safety training and gear. The Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate and other institutions all fail to reach the minimum standards required to keep their crew safe.
When Iraqi reporters were embedded with the US military before it withdrew from Iraq in 2011, they got instructions and guidelines from US military officers before starting their mission. These instructions stated the importance of them not risking their lives in battle. The officers told them to move to designated safe zones when there was an exchange of fire. But in the war against ISIS, there are no signed agreements or arrangements between the armed forces and their embedded correspondents. A military source who escorts Iraqi war correspondents said correspondents receive no instructions.
Joel Whittaker, a trainer for the International News Safety Institute in London, said practices vary by organization and there is no single standard. Security industry experts maintain that every person deployed into a hostile environment; journalist, fixer, driver, cameraman, get such training and equal access to insurance, medical care, and Personal Protective Equipment. He explained that training for work in hostile environment is a requirement by insurers and media companies and they may not insure or employ a person without it. He said that “in Iraq, the US military insured all media personnel when they were on base and embedded with US troops, and the UK military did a similar thing.”
Armatures in the line of fire
Iraq has 54 satellite channels, some belonging to political parties, business tycoons, armed factions, clergy, and one state-run network. Most are based in Iraq while up to 15 percent broadcast from abroad.
The journalist conducted a survey in cooperation with the Journalists Freedom Observatory which found that 20 war correspondents were documented to have been shoved by their stations into war coverage with no training. These 20 had no work contracts, only an assignment. Article 13 of the Law on the Protection of Journalists for 2011 states that “Local and foreign media entities working in the Republic of Iraq must commit to signing contracts with journalists working for them according to a form set by the Syndicate or through its branch in the region. A copy of the contract is to be submitted to the Syndicate.”
The Head of the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate and the Federation of Arab Journalists, Muaid Al Lami, said the syndicate had just started work on a unified contract format to be distributed to media institutions. Al Lami’s statement comes more than five years after expiration of the journalist protection law.
Although Al Lami stressed that there were many signed contracts at the Syndicate, the writer was unable to see a single contract one despite repeated requests. The Syndicate said it had no time to justify this lack of response and that the Syndicate head was traveling abroad.
(2) A Syndicate officials who asked to stay anonymous said the Syndicate has copies of two contracts, and declined to share them.
A senior official in one of the Iraqi satellite channels, who requested not to be named, said most journalists do not have contracts. Instead, they have administrative recruitment orders by the media entity. He added “I am in the position of deputy manager at the channel where I work. I am the next in charge after the general director and despite this, I do not have a contract.”
Lacking the Basics of Military Reporting Skills
Chair of the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq, Mustafa Nasir, accused the Iraqi media channels of not appropriately training journalists. He based his accusation on an Association study.
Nasir said that local media channels offer no support to journalists. Often a war correspondent doesn’t understand his or her assurances when covering military operations. Certain channels even feed reporters religious and ethnic rhetoric and send them to battle with no assurances, incentives, or means to protect themselves.
War correspondent Habib Mohammed, 32, said that he turned down a job at one Iraqi satellite channel because the job offer came with no guarantees to protect his life.
The main condition the channel, which Mohammed preferred not to mention, wanted him to sign on to was that he agreed to cover live combat immediately. He was also asked to sign a written statement waiving all legal rights and financial assurances in case of injury or worse. He turned over a copy of the statement he was asked to sign.
It said that Mohammed was to work as a permanent staff member with no contract and that the channel “will not be responsible in the event that he is exposed to danger while covering combat; and that the channel is not to be held accountable legally or to a tribal code or court of law to him, members of his family or relatives. The administration is also not obligated to pay financial compensation if any harm becomes to him.”
Ahmad Shihab, director of Hona Baghdad channel, which Habib Mohammed worked for, said the channel has one war correspondent who participated in one safety training in Baghdad. As for Mohammed, although he covered western Iraq throughout the second half of 2014, he quit and left Iraq for Europe in early 2015.
The director of Iraq’s Journalists Freedom Observatory, Ziyad Al Ajili, describes the hiring policy for journalists as “masked extortion”. They violate journalistic codes which state that war correspondents must be prepared before being sent into conflict zones, he said.
Journalists in Iraq are not hired according to agreed-upon conditions in contracts. Some undergo tests to measure their skills and others don’t. Al Hurra Iraq is one of the Iraqi channels that looks out the best its reporters. Yet its bureau chief in Baghdad, Falah Al Thahabi, did not fill out the survey form sent him despite this writer’s repeated calls.
This journalist sent survey forms to 14 Iraqi channels and networks: Al Iraqyia, Alforat, Al Ghadeer, Al Masar, Al Mada, Alsumaria, Al Sharqiya, Rudaw, Hona Baghdad, NRT, Alahad, Asia, Al Hurra Iraq, and Afaq.
Ten replied , while four managers declined to take calls or saidthey were unable to respond because they were traveling abroad.
The survey showed that six of the 10 channels that responded cdid not send copies to the Syndicate. Two satellite channels said they shared copies with the Syndicate but refused t access to those contracts for “special” reasons. We were also unable to look at the contracts of one network because it was registered at the journalists’ syndicate in Iraqi Kurdistan. The state-run Al Iraqiya did not send copies of its contracts to the Syndicate.
The survey distributed to 15 journalists in several networks showed that nine had no contracts with their employers. Six said they had contracts but that the management did not give them copies, meaning those contracts stayed solely with the administration.
Twelve of 15 journalists surveyed received no training, despite being part of the combat crews covering battles between Iraqi armed forces against ISIS. Only three received training on reporting in conflict zones.
Adnan Hussein, chair of the National Union of Iraqi Journalists that opposes the policies of the Syndicate chaired by Ali Al Lami, stressed that most local Iraqi institutions still refuse to sign journalists to secure contracts. Hussein cited that after this investigation, a large number of journalists were laid off with no notice.
Hussein believes that not applying legal measures when hiring journalists motivates amateur journalists to accept jobs as war correspondents. Hussein admitted that he is unaware of any mapping of the number of war correspondents and that he has no copies of contracts networks should offer. His union did not offer model contracts media institutions should use.
The National Union of Iraqi Journalists offered 15 journalism training workshops across Iraq in the past three years and is conducting additional workshops in Baghdad and Erbil during October and November. But it has not conducted any workshop specifically for war correspondents.
Reporters with no armors
Mohammed Aboud, former news director at Alforat private satellite channel, said the channel has 12 war correspondents disbursed to battlefields across Iraq. However, it only provided four protective vests, two of which cost just $90 each due to financial constraints. He said the channel used to pay $85 per a military report, then cut this to $50 and now pays $35 per a report from the war fronts.
The director of Iraq’s Journalists Freedom Observatory, Ziyad Al Ajili, believes that the actual experience of covering battles in Iraq shows the gap between Iraqi media institutions and their foreign and Arab counterparts when it comes to the protection of war correspondents.
Ahmad Al Sahin, director of local news channel Al Etejah, said it’s not only the responsibility of the channel. The most important part, he said, concerns reporters themselves because they often dismiss instructions or protocols by entering dangerous areas with soldiers to get the best footage.
Al Sahin says this is what happened in Tikrit in 2015 when the channel’s reporters entered the city with advancing troops. A sniper killed the driver of the channel’slive broadcast SNG truck.
Muhanad Al Iqabi, the media spokesperson for Iraq’s Populist Mobilization Force, agreed. He said many reporters “get carried away when covering battles and ignore plans in place to protect them. Many reporters enter dangerous places at the wrong times.”
Ali Al Rimahi, a cameraman for Alforat channel injured in the battles in Tikrit said: “the reason this happened to him was his lack of any experience in covering battles, except for what he learned on the job, the channel did not enroll him in any workshop for war coverage.”
Amjad Taleh, in charge of reporters at the state-funded Al Iraqiya, stressed that war correspondents on the battlefields today “have not undergone any safety training.”
Independent war correspondent Yunus Al Bayati says that most beginning reporters who accompany him covering battles in eastern Iraq did not know how to conduct themselves. Many advanced with troops on the front lines without regard for safety procedures. Some walked on the sides of roads that ISIS tend to plant with explosives and ignored parallel routes and river streams which are usually safer.
Al Bayati recalled how he once persuaded his peers to withdraw 200 meters away from a location just freed by the Iraqi army: “I told them this area will be hit and minutes later, a mortar landed in the same spot after they moved back. Many soldiers were killed and injured in the blast.”
Al Bayati’s experience as a former officer in the Iraqi army kept him safe during war coverage. These skills, he said, were never acquired from the channels he worked for.
Ra’ad Al Mash’hadani, a reporter for Al Rasheed satellite channel, says he does not know how he survived three near-death experiences in one day when he was on his way to cover the liberation of Tikrit summer of 2015.
Meanwhile, AlDiyar reporter Nada Al Marsomi suffers from a sense of helplessness and fear every time she takes a trip to the front lines.
Al Marsomi only wore a helmet and vest once out of the tens of times. The channel she works for provided her with nothing, she explained. “It was I who took care of everything.”
The channel told Al Marsomi that if she was harmed while on duty, the channel was not responsible.
Conflicting Positions and Statistics
Al Lami said his Syndicate has trained 300 journalists on reporting in combat, but he would not share a list of trainees or disclose the location of these trainings.
The chair of the National Union of Iraqi Journalists, Adnan Hussein, questioned Al Lami’s statement. Hussein is also a manager in Al Mada media network which owns a satellite channel, radio station, news agency, daily newspaper, and two publishing houses. Hussein stressed that the figures Al Lami gave are not true because Al Mada has not had a single war correspondent trained by the Syndicate that Al Lami spoke of.
Al Lamil said: “It is not our duty to provide journalists with protective vests and helmets. Our role is only to guide them. Security forces take the responsibility to protect the safety of journalists. Just as they protect the soldier and the officer they must also protect journalist.”
He said channels are not providing their journalists with vests and helmets because “the economic conditions the country is going through prohibits them from buying vests and helmets for their reporters.” Al Lami added: “that investigating the cause of the journalists’ death or injury while on duty and determining whether they were wearing their protective gear while reporting is also not the job of the Syndicate.”
This story originally stated that no western correspondent casualties had been reported since 2014. There have actually been multiple reports of injuries. The story has been changed to report that since that time, no western correspondent in Iraq has been killed.
International standards for reporting in conflict zones adopted by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in New York, which specializes in the safety of journalists include:
1– Before embarking on any assignment in a conflict zone or where t there is danger, journalists must be equipped with the basic skills to take care of themselves and injured peers.
2– We encourage all journalists to learn first aid to be able to carry a number of appropriate steps and to keep their training up to date in order to maintain physical and mental health standards.
3– Journalists in war zones must make sure of the quality and availability of protective gear against weapons including protective vests and helmets.
4– Journalists must do an accurate risk assessment before traveling to war or danger zone. They must weigh the journalistic value that may be achieved with the risks.
5– War correspondents must identify means to move and communicate with their peers or editors and to keep in touch online.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net