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In Iraq, Journalists Who Cover Corruption Are Buying Guns to Protect Themselves

Journalists in Anbar no longer fear al-Qaeda and its affiliates but instead believe they are being targeted by political factions.
 
 
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Journalist Yasin al-Fadhawi’s recent brush with death has prompted him to look for a new home -- and a gun.

As he was getting ready for work on May 30, Fadhawi received an early-morning call from his neighbor -- a man he describes as “annoyingly curious” -- warning him that danger was lurking.

“His voice was shaking as he told me over and over again, ‘Don’t go out, stay in your house and call the police. Two people put a strange object at the entrance to your house and ran away’,” Fadhawi recalled.

Fadhawi rang the security forces, who spent more than an hour diffusing a two-kilogram bomb the size of a football close to his front door. Police said that if it had gone off, the bomb would have killed Fadhawi and his family.

Fadhawi believes the incident was connected to his work: two days prior to the bomb scare, his magazine published his report on alleged government corruption involving tribal chiefs.

He credits his neighbor with saving his life but, fearing for his safety and that of his family, Fadhawi fled his home in Al-Khaldiya, a town in western Anbar province, and is shopping around for a gun.

He has submitted an application for a weapons license, but if it is not approved he said he will fork out up to a month’s salary -- 900 US dollars -- for a gun on the black market.

Police in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, report that at least 43 journalists in the province have applied for gun licenses since April, amid an increasingly hostile climate for journalists.

Once a stronghold for Sunni insurgents and one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq, Anbar -- now controlled by Iraqi forces -- has been held up as an example of the government’s ability to stabilize formerly volatile regions of the country.

But journalists in Anbar say their jobs continue to put them at grave risk. They no longer fear al-Qaeda and its affiliates -- which hunted down journalists --but instead believe they are being targeted by political factions.

Particularly risky for journalists is exposing corruption or challenging political parties or the authorities.

Yousif Abu Jabal, editor-in-chief of the Al-Esnad newspaper in Fallujah, barely survived a drive-by shooting last year after he wrote an article on Iranian intervention in Iraq. An American patrol showed up as his car was coming under fire, saving his life, he said.

“I don’t blame any journalist who carries or wants to carry guns in Anbar,” said Jabal. “The situation here is unbelievably dangerous.”

Anwar Ibrahim, head of the Journalists' Rights Protection Association in Anbar, said nine colleagues in Fallujah have received death threats since March.

Journalists either quit their jobs, leave their homes and go into hiding “or carry pistols without permission and live in fear”, said Ibrahim.

Omar Mohammed, who works for Voices of Iraq Agency, revealed he applied for a gun license after receiving a letter last month that, he said, warned him to “quit your job or you will die”.

Mohammed had recently written on alleged corruption and bribery, reports which he said “were not welcomed by some parties in Anbar”.

“I’m expecting to be killed by several political groups at any moment,” said Mohammed.

But journalists who’ve submitted gun license applications to the interior ministry in Baghdad complain that they’re requests are either being denied or put on hold.

At the same time, some journalists argue that carrying weapons undermines their neutrality and puts them at greater risk of being attacked.

Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Baghdad-based media rights organization the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, said he understands why reporters feel they need to carry guns, but warns that if they fall into the hands of insurgents or are detained by the military, they would not be considered – or treated – as civilians. He said they would run the risk of the being killed by the former and imprisoned by the latter.

“In a war anything is possible, especially when a journalist is armed,” said Ajili. “Weapons could endanger [a journalist] rather than protect him.”

But few Anbar journalists share this view.

One Fallujah-based photographer, working for an international news agency, said he bought a gun on the black market after his application for a license was denied. He said he carries it with him at all times as he is always fearful of being targeted. “The police are indifferent whether we live or die,” he said.

Mistrust of the military and security forces runs deep in Anbar. Mohammed Faysal, a Reuters reporter, was beaten by police in Fallujah while filming the aftermath of a car bombing in mid-May. He suffered six blows to the head, leaving him with concussion and a scar on his face.

Colonel Daud al-Marawi, deputy police commissioner in Fallujah, said two officers were held in custody for several days after the incident, but Faysal said the investigation has gone nowhere.

Marawi insisted the security forces do not target journalists and maintained that his officers investigate threats made against the press by political, religious or armed groups.

He also said security forces are willing to provide journalists with escorts in volatile areas, as well as flak-jackets and helmets.

But his words provide little reassurance for Fahdawi, who says he is looking for a new home in a more secure area and that in future he will “not write anything that could cost me my life”.