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Reuters’ Baghdad bureau chief on why he fled Iraq

April 16, 2015

Once Ned Parker saw his face plastered across an Iraqi television channel, he knew he had to flee. On April 3, Reuters’ Baghdad bureau chief helped chronicle in gruesome detail the lynching of suspected ISIS captives by government and paramilitary forces. Within days, a social media campaign began demanding his expulsion from the country, with some commenters calling for his murder. Despite Reuters’ attempts to placate those parties, Parker’s picture soon made it onto a televised broadcast by a paramilitary group that has been previously implicated in violence toward Westerners. The journalist left the country last week.

Iraq is notoriously dangerous for reporters. At least 15 have been killed there since 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And dangers have seemingly increased as the war between ISIS, a militant Sunni group, and the central government, backed by Washington and various local militias, has raged. Most of the risk is shouldered by Iraqi reporters, though Parker’s story drew wrath toward Reuters as well. CJR spoke with him by phone Thursday about how his departure played out and what it means for press freedom in Iraq. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The story you wrote was incredibly chilling, not to mention extremely detailed. There have been a lot of reports, either as small stories or mentioned briefly within larger stories, describing violence by various militias in Iraq. Why did you decide to describe this specific scene at such length?

When reporting in Iraq, there are always issues of pressure or blowback. Looking at what happened, our team had witnessed an execution and mass looting and arson over that day, Wednesday, and also the day after. The question when our team came home that night was, “Is writing about this worth it? Is it sensationalist to write about the execution of one suspected detainee?” And we debated vigorously because we knew there would be some pushback, somehow, given the chaotic and polarized nature of Iraq.

What we had witnessed cumulatively showed a chaotic, anarchic scene: the desecration of property; looting; burning; a body being dragged by a paramilitary group; an execution by federal police. The picture that came out was one of a failure to ensure stability when a Shiite-led security force and paramilitaries entered a predominantly Sunni town. We felt that we had to fulfill our obligation to report fairly and impartially on what happened. And we feel our report really shed important light on the government’s failure to provide stabilization.

If we didn’t report it this time, then the next time there was an operation to retake say, a predominantly Sunni area from the Islamic State, and there were similar incidents, in some ways we would have been complicit. We would have failed in our jobs as providers of truthful, fair, and unbiased information to the public.

After publication, there were Facebook posts about your reporting, which were pretty widely shared, and eventually a TV news report that circulated a picture of you. Once it gets to that stage, once the blowback becomes that public, is there anything you can do? Did you try to respond to this in any way to people on the ground there, or reach out to paramilitary groups? Or at that point is it just too late?

Facebook is widely used by Iraqis—by political parties, paramilitary groups, private citizens. It’s a very vital means of communication in Iraq. The report came out on April 3. On April 5, I was literally about to go to sleep when I was suddenly made aware that my face was up on a Facebook page. Shiite and paramilitary and political forces were calling for my expulsion, using derogatory, inflammatory language about me. And this is dangerous. It was quickly shared by over 100 people. And there were soon threats against me—two threats calling for me not to be expelled, but to be killed.

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Of course, we then had to have a debate of what to do then. Some people thought I should leave right then because it was a clear threat. My face was out there with language that was definitely inciting hatred. I came down on the side—after consultation with colleagues—of trying to stay, lay low, and see if this would blow over. Also, could we reach out to people within the broader political and paramilitary community to resolve this?

So we did try. As we were in the midst of talking with and engaging different people, what became clear was that everyone was aware of this page, this image, of me. And then on Wednesday night, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite political party and paramilitary group, its television station broadcast my face and waved a poster of my face and called for my expulsion. After this, it was really no longer an option for me to stay.

How would you describe the climate for journalists in Iraq on a day-to-day basis? What are the things you have to think about in terms of your own security, your team’s security, and how does that factor into your reporting?

Iraq is a dangerous place to be a journalist—first and foremost if you’re an Iraqi journalist, a local. They are the most exposed. The political and cultural landscape is a minefield. The public debate and discourse is charged and polarized. Right now there’s a war. Like America after 9/11, it’s very black and white: You’re either with us or against us. And to be a journalist trying to write the truth fairly and impartially is dangerous. There’s no protection, particularly if you’re a local.

What’s different in my case is that it’s the first time there’s been such a public campaign against an international journalist. And the fallout from that, at this point, is that our staff is certainly demonized. And in a country where anything can happen, that’s a frightening thought.

Last Thursday when I drove to the airport, for example, the federal police stopped our car at a checkpoint. Normally, they ask who you are, where you’re from, and you’ll say ‘media’ and show them an ID. This time, they asked, “What’s your agency?” Maybe that’s nothing. But in this context, it was concerning. Last Friday, there was a tour by a paramilitary group of an area north of Baghdad. Another paramilitary group came by that convoy and talked with reporters and asked them, “Are any of your from Reuters?” In neighborhoods now, I know that there are people asking if they think that someone had worked with Reuters.

The climate now is poisonous for our staff, which is deeply troubling.

Can Western journalists actually go out into the field to report? Or is it too dangerous? Do you have to rely on local stringers or freelancers?

Iraq is very dangerous right now. And the ability to move in places, like in Anbar for instance, is incredibly difficult. But right up until I left, I was going out regularly and reporting around the country, doing tours with some of these paramilitary groups up to the edges of Tikrit, and traveling on my own to visit different people around the perimeter and rural areas outside of Baghdad.

But I would say the lines are blurring. And the big question from what happened with me is, “What will the sides allow when it comes to impartial reporting that gives voice to all sides but perhaps reflects negatively on one of the groups out there?” Will such reporting be tolerated anymore? Or will what happened to me happen to someone else? Will something worse happen?

Has the security situation for media changed at all since this American-backed offensive has began? Do you get the sense that the administration in Baghdad is really concerned by such events?

Prime Minister [Haider] al-Abadi has come out in favor of media freedom. He’s dropped lawsuits against newspapers by the previous government. They’re in the course of a war, so they’re juggling many things. But I would say that, with what happened with Reuters, the messages we have gotten have been incredibly mixed.

The day after the television station fanned the flame against us, Prime Minister al-Abadi was at a memorial for a late Shiite leader who was killed by Saddam Hussein. In a televised address, he insinuated that journalists who had been in Tikrit had an agenda against the government and against the Shiite paramilitaries fighting, and implied that if journalists were by the site of an execution, surely there was an insidious reason that they were witnessing it.

So having that speech wasn’t helpful. [The Prime Minister’s office] didn’t have to speak about Reuters or defend Reuters—I understand why they wouldn’t want to—but by giving a speech like that, they only encouraged a negative and dangerous trend for myself and my office. On Monday, the day before Prime Minister al-Abadi visited Washington, his office issued a statement in English in defense of the press, including Reuters—he mentioned our situation by name. But this statement did not come out in Arabic, so its reach was very limited.

What’s next for you? Do you think there’s a chance of ever going back to Iraq?

My main concern is the safety of our bureau, that the people who work there can practice the trade of journalism. Will I go back at some point? I’m not sure yet. We’re taking it day to day. What happened has made it incredibly dangerous for me to be in Iraq. Maybe that will change with time, so we just have to monitor the situation.

I love Iraq. I love the country. I love the people there. I’ve spent a lot of time working in Iraq. And I care deeply about what happens there.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.