AM: For foreign staff in Baghdad, operating independently of U.S.-led forces, mobility has shrunk to almost zero over the past two years. The risk of kidnapping is extremely high and it is no longer possible to travel freely around the city. Even going to a news conference in the Green Zone has become a major logistical operation involving armoured cars, two-way radios and heavy security precautions.
In some parts of the country, such as the Kurdish north and some Shi’ite areas in the south, it is possible to travel more freely with the proper precautions. But the key problem is getting there — most of the roads out of Baghdad are exceptionally dangerous. Embedding with U.S. forces does offer mobility, and embedding is an invaluable part of our reporting in Iraq. I salute the U.S. military for its willingness to provide such access to journalists. But embedding only gives one part of the story, and that is why we are so reliant on Iraqi journalists for much of our reporting.
I do not believe that we have had to lose too many stories because of the security conditions in Iraq. We have just had to change the way we get our stories. We quickly learned that through teamwork and collaborative reporting, with Iraqi and foreign staff working closely together, we could find a way to safely report most stories. Initially, as conditions deteriorated, we cut back on features, lifestyle stories and other items that could be considered non-essential, but now we are doing these stories again. We just need to spend more time working out how to do them safely.
The other main roadblock faced by reporters in Iraq is that institutions there are still evolving, and still learning how to deal with journalists and their requests. But Iraqi ministries have made great progress over the past two years in terms of their dealings with journalists. Journalists are used to roadblocks, officials who may not want to talk, groups issuing misleading information to support their position, and so on, and it is our job to overcome these roadblocks. The key difference between reporting in Iraq and elsewhere is the danger.
LCB: How did your job evolve over the two years that you were in Iraq as the situation on the ground evolved?
AM: The key change was that safety issues came to dominate everything else. Iraq was, of course, a risky place in May 2003 when I first arrived, but it was possible to travel relatively freely around the country, and my job was focused on ensuring that our coverage was better than our competitors. As the situation deteriorated, and operating in Iraq became ever more dangerous, the safety of our staff became the central focus of my job.
One of the strongest illustrations of how my job changed — and how Iraq changed — is the way our bureau evolved over the past two years. When I first arrived in Baghdad, Reuters was based in a house on a normal street near the Tigris river. Foreign staff lived in nearby hotels and came to the office every day to work. After the United Nations bombing in August 2003, it was clear that Reuters was a potential target for suicide bombers and we blocked the street to traffic, with the agreement of local residents and other media organizations based nearby. We hired a team of armed Iraqi guards to patrol the area 24 hours a day, and built checkpoints where all vehicles coming into the road could be searched. As security worsened, and the Sheraton Hotel where foreign staff were based came under frequent rocket and mortar attack, we hired more houses in the street to accommodate staff, and moved out of the Sheraton. Later we erected huge concrete blast walls around all of our Baghdad properties, so that they would be shielded from suicide bombings. We bought low-profile armored cars, which became essential for reporting trips. We upgraded our generator because of the frequent power cuts, and even dug a well in the bureau garden in January this year so that we had a water supply, after an insurgent attack knocked out the Baghdad water system for days. By the time I left, the Reuters compound was a fortress.
LCB: What did you find to be the biggest challenges of reporting in Iraq? How was it different from other tough assignments you have had such as covering the overthrow of Taliban in Afghanistan or the violence in East Timor in 1999?