Iraqi Journalists Share Stories of Violence

On May 6, 2010, Sardasht Osman, a 23-year-old reporter for Ashtiname and a regular contributor to Awene, both independent opposition newspapers in Iraqi Kurdistan, was found shot to death in the city of Mosul.

The murder is still unsolved, like 88 other murder cases involving journalists from the last ten years in Iraq, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While stability in the country is improving, journalists still face a volatile reality even if their lives are not at risk.

On July 19, the Dart Center hosted a group of ten Iraqi journalists at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as part of an international visitor program through the U.S. State Department, which gathers journalists from post-conflict nations and emerging democracies and brings them to the U.S. for discussions with news organizations about press freedom.

The group met with Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro and discussed challenges facing media professionals who work in violent environments. Participants included the Dean of the Media College at Baghdad University, the News Editor of Awene (the publication of the murdered journalist), and a spokesperson from the Iraqi Elections Monitoring Network.

Shapiro related the issues of journalism and trauma to the topic of freedom of the press: "Trauma is a press freedom issue because a journalist who is silenced by exhaustion, PTSD, or fear is a journalist who is effectively censored," he said.

While the Iraqi journalists were not using the language of trauma to tell their stories, most participants echoed similar experiences of witnessing violence regularly as part of their work. One news editor said that when he sends out reporting staff, he tells them that if their lives are at all in danger, to leave the scene immediately. Sometimes the threats come from bombings or attacks, but they also come from bystanders who harrass journalists if they believe the reporter isn't doing their job properly.

Another participant, who explained that he frequently has to cover bombings and suicide, talked about the kinds of scenarios in which a bystander would attack a journalist. It's a dilemma many journalists face when they are the first to arrive at the scene of a traumatic incident: Should one take pictures and take notes for a story or help the victims? Should one wait for a health worker to do the first aid? Some participants argued that by putting down their cameras and notebooks, even if to help an injured individual, they are failing to fulfill their role as dispassionate witnesses. But there is no easy answer; each situation is different. And if the reporter chooses to take pictures and conduct interviews, that is the kind of situation that the Iraqi journalists explained could lead to harrasment by onlookers.

Shapiro emphasized that whatever the decision, it's important that media organizations be having these kinds of conversations in advance so that journalists in the field can be prepared for such incidents.

While there are no studies about the psychological impact on local reporters in Iraq, it is clear that they are facing a challenging situation with great resilience. The ten participants in this fascinating conversation, individuals who are facing some of the most difficult work environments imaginable, are a testament to this reality.

For more information on the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Program, click here. For Dart Center coverage on interviewing victims, click here.