Iraq: Reporting under Fire

For reporters on the ground in Iraq, it?s the danger involved that is shrinking coverage.

| Mon Jan. 23, 2006 3:00 AM EST

Article created by The Century Foundation.

Time's Baghdad bureau was under lockdown in April 2005. It was not the first time we’d been confined to quarters by a direct threat to the magazine’s personnel, so the routine was familiar: stay inside the house, twenty-four hours a day, until the threat eases. This time, an Iraqi stringer working for us had been picked up by a group of insurgents and interrogated, none too gently, to confirm their suspicion that the foreigners in the Time house were CIA agents. It was plain these insurgents had been keeping a sharp eye on us, monitoring our movements closely, and digging into personal details about our Iraqi staff. Once we got wind of their interest, our correspondents had little choice but to hunker down: there isn’t much else you can do to protect yourselves at such a moment except try to keep out of sight and reach.

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Experience had taught us to take these rumors seriously. In March 2004, one of our Iraqi staffers had been murdered as he left his car one morning to enter the house we had rented during the buoyant days right after the U.S. invasion, in what we thought was a peaceful, discreet, upperclass Baghdad neighborhood. After that attack, Time moved back to the heavily fortified Palestine Hotel, still occupied by many Western journalists, until conditions there grew intolerable: no reliable electric power, dwindling security, increasing danger and discomfort for our staff to get in and out. We then moved again, to our current house, a modest place inside a lower profile, barricaded compound that offers a less obvious target to those who are attacking Westerners. After a week of that strict lockdown, our stringer was freed when he finally managed to convince his captors that we were really journalists, and we resumed what passes for normal life in Baghdad.

The dangers in Iraq have reached a point where staying safe overshadows getting the story. In other wars, there was the front and there was the base, behind the lines, where you could retire in relative peace and safety to write your story, grab a good meal, and hang with friends. In Iraq , there is only the front line, and it is everywhere except, you hope, within the cramped confines of your own fortified room. Whether we like to admit it or not, the constant sense of personal jeopardy affects our reporting. We often feel we’re not seeing the full picture, we’re missing important stuff, we’re limited in our perspective, we’re not able to witness critical events for ourselves. It’s immensely frustrating, especially when the story is as important as this one. Good stories do get done, just not enough of them.

Two years into this conflict, coverage has been substantially reduced by all Western media. Some of that is the natural falloff of any long-running story. Except for stories about American soldiers, Americans seem weary of Iraq: of the sameness in the daily compilations of violence, the lack of military progress, the slow pace of political change, the sense of American failure. They’ve heard enough of the grim vicissitudes of life for Iraqis or the hundred and one ways the U.S. enterprise has failed to achieve its promised goals. They say they want more “good” stories from Iraq . But for reporters on the ground, it’s the danger involved that is shrinking coverage. We’d all love to file a broader range of stories. Not surprisingly in that environment, more organizations and more correspondents are deciding the risk is not worth it.