EBU: Covering Iraq

Reporters without Borders say that the war in Iraq is the deadliest for journalists since World War II. They report that 93 journalists and media assistants have been killed in Iraq. By comparison, over 20 years, 66 journalists were killed covering the war in Vietnam.

This session probably more than any other really unveiled the ethical dilemmas and life or death decisions that journalists working in war zones and oppressive countries face. It makes my job, sitting behind a desk in London now, or when when I was in the field in the US, look cushy.

I should have posted this on Friday but while our hosts at Polish Radio were very gracious, their firewall was a little too vigilant.

Jonathan Baker, the deputy head of newsgathering at the BBC, says we’re spending $2.5million a year for our coverage in Iraq, which was the figure for the last two years. A lot of that has gone into spending for increased security.

Why does it cost so much? The BBC has had to greatly increase security at the two buildings it rents in Baghdad, and we cycle staff through pretty regularly, about three weeks. A lot of the cost is down to security advisors, Jonathan said.

If you can’t afford the training, the safety equipment and the security, then you shouldn ‘t go becuase you are abdicating your responsibility as an employer.

I wondered how other journalists in the room felt about that statement. Not all of the organisations at the conference have the kind of resources the BBC has.

But Jonathan was also frank about the limits the security situation puts on our reporting there.

Our ability to operate has become more and more circumscribed. We constantly review our operations there. We have never claimed that our reporting from Iraq is perfect. We know that it is flawed. We seldom leave the bureau. We very rarely leave Baghdad. People do not come to our bureau. We rely heavily on agencies for pictures. What we are left with is what some people call is roof top reporting.

Michael Mullane of the EBU had a great term for it: Dish monkeys.

But as Michael said, both Jonathan and World Editor Patrick Howse defended what the BBC was able to get from its presence in Iraq.

We have sources available to us locally that we would not have if we were not there. We go on patrol with American and British forces, Jonathan said. And increasingly, they use these patrols to gain access to ordinary Iraqis.

Patrick used the example of the coverage of the bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, a key Shia religious site. Patrick said that when his fixers heard the news, they went pale. They lost all colour.

The atmosphere really deteriorated in an hour. … The atmosphere in Baghdad two hours after the bombing was absolutely poisonous. … This is not something you can pick up from Amman or Dubai or from an e-mail.

“We were quickly able to establish that there were 10,000 to 20,000 people on the streets of Samarra calling for the blood of Sunnis, foreigners, Americans,” Patrick said.

They were not able to go to Samarra, despite the request by at least one programme. Patrick calmly replied that they wouldn’t be sending. To drive the point home, he said to London that they would either be shot en route or ripped to shreds by the mob. One reporter from Al Arabiya did go and do lives early on after the bombing. She and her crew were brutally killed.

But in the days after the bombing, they were able to do journalism. The interior ministry had ‘set’ the death toll at 300, but Patrick was able to go to the city morgue and confirm what a fiction that figure was. The morgue was full, and it alone had a capacity of 300 bodies. The US military had loaned the city morgue an articularted, refigerated lorry to help hold other bodies. While they were at the morgue, three cars came to the morgue with bodies strapped to their roofs.

Mariusz Borkowski with Polish Radio said that coverage in Iraq had given rise to impossible problems for them and not just because of the security. Financially it was draining.

They have done some excellent work under very trying conditions. During the war, some of their reporters were taken hostage by Iraqi army. It’s dangerous and expensive, but Poland has troops there. And he said that Poland is in a very paradoxical situation, more than 70% of Poles oppose their troops being in Iraq.

Polish Radio is the only Polish media outlet with a permanent presence in Iraq. Considering the cost and the risks, he still asked: “Can we afford as a public broadcaster not to be in Iraq?”

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