What’s going on in Iraq right now is horrifying, and obviously what is happening to journalists is just a small part of that. When the media focus on the fate of their colleagues — Daniel Pearl, Jill Carroll and now the three Arab journalists — we often hear criticism about our misplaced sense of priorities. Point taken. And it obviously doesn’t get much worse than this Al-Jazeera report:
In Basra, where the curfew was not in effect, on Friday armed men kidnapped three children of a Shia legislator. The son and two daughters of Qasim Attiyah al-Jbouri — aged between seven and 11 years — were abducted by armed men near the family home, police said.
But even though violence in Iraq affects everyone there, journalists have a unique and crucial role in such an environment. At best, journalists bear witness and tell the truth to the world at large, making sense out of the incomprehensible. They can’t solve such crises. But they can help people understand. And with understanding comes the glimmer of a possible solution.
At this point it’s not entirely clear what happened to the three journalists who were killed yesterday. This much we know: A well-known reporter for Al-Arabiya named Atwar Bahjat, as well as two colleagues who worked for an Iraqi television service, engineer Adnan Khairullah and cameraman Khalid Mahmoud, were deliberately murdered near Samarra by thugs who shouted, “We want the correspondent!” or “We want the anchorwoman!”, depending on which translation you read. Bahjat, clearly, was singled out for execution.
This Associated Press story, which appears in today’s Boston Globe, claims that initial reports that the three had been kidnapped and then killed were apparently wrong. In fact, the story says, Al-Arabiya now believes “they had been killed on the spot.” Yet other media outlets, including BBC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post, all include the kidnapping claim today.
A report from Arab News goes into considerably more detail on what Al-Arabiya is saying about the murders. But by the admission of Al-Arabiya’s own spokesman, the news service isn’t sure what happened, either:
“According to eyewitnesses and the official account given by the Iraqi security forces, armed individuals ambushed Atwar Bahjat and her colleagues Adnan Khairallah and Khalid Mahmoud while she was interviewing people on the outskirts of Samarra, kidnapped them and then killed them,” Al-Arabiya spokesman Jihad Ballout said by telephone from the satellite channel’s headquarters in Dubai.
“This is the official story but I don’t have anything to confirm or refute this,” he said.
The last live report filed by Atwar was on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. Dubai time and the last contact she had with the Dubai office was approximately a half-hour later. Around midnight, the Dubai office was informed about the death of the three journalists. Their bodies were identified and handed over to their families after completing all the necessary procedures.
Nor are the news services entirely clear on who Atwar Bahjat was. Most describe her as being 30 years old, although the BBC says she’s 26. Of far more significance is that she is generally described as being Sunni — an obvious target in the sectarian battles that broke out this week following the attack on the Shiite shrine. But her background appears to have been quite a bit more complicated and interesting than that.
Here, for instance, is an appreciation from The Times of London:
There were so many reasons not to kill Atwar Bahjat. She was half Sunni, half Shia, a woman, an Iraqi, 30 years old, a native of Samarra and a renowned journalist for the Dubai-based al-Arabiya news channel….
Ms Bahjat, famed for her courageous frontline reporting, had driven towards Samarra with her cameraman, Khaled Mahmud al-Falahi, and soundman, Adnan Khairallah. On the edge of the city they found their way blocked by security checkpoints so Ms Bahjat made two live transmissions from where she was, interviewing citizens of Samarra who condemned the bomb blast. By her third and final report, at 6pm local time, Ms Bahjat appeared strained and tired. “She began calling us just after 6pm,” said Dhia al-Nasseri, a colleague at al-Arabiya’s office in Baghdad yesterday. “She was worried. The place was very dangerous. She needed to get into Samarra but the roads were blocked. It was a long way back and night was falling. She called us and various officials, asking for help.”
Read the entire article. It is riveting.
I could not find anything on Al-Jazeera’s English-language Web site about the three murders, even though Bahjat had been a reporter for the Al-Jazeera before moving to the more pro-Western Al-Arabiya. There are two photos of Bahjat on the Al-Arabiya home page right now, but the text is in Arabic.
What ought to worry all of us is that Iraq may be making its final descent into utter chaos, and that fewer and fewer reporters will be willing (or alive) to tell the story. I don’t mean to exaggerate — there are still plenty of journalists in Iraq. But with each kidnapping, with each murder, there is less incentive for reporters to take risks and get beyond the relative safety of the hotels in which they are holed up.
I’m not sure there has ever been a war like this, at least in modern times. Even in the former Yugoslavia, an intrepid reporter like the Boston Globe’s Elizabeth Neuffer — who died in an accident early in the Iraq war — was able to shuttle among the various murderous factions. After all, under the old rules, even war criminals wanted to get their propaganda out, not kill the messenger. Now that has been turned on its head.