- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

A reluctant reporter

Sometime in 1993, months before the tragic battle in Somalia portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down,” I was in Nairobi, Kenya, for a return visit to a city where I had worked as a reporter a few years before.

I was at the bar of the Norfolk Hotel — a wonderfully exotic 100-year-old establishment that still has the hitching posts where patrons used to tie up their horses — having a drink with the Associated Press bureau chief and a couple of other journalists.

One of the reporters was due to fly the next day to Mogadishu for his third tour of duty in that Godforsaken capital — a place where reporters had to hire khat-chewing gunmen to protect them and never knew when the security guards might turn the guns on the people who hired them.

This reporter was trying to pluck up his nerve with gallows humor but obviously was not happy to be going. I had never before seen a seasoned foreign correspondent so reluctant to go and cover a big story.

We still have reporters who are eager to go to Baghdad, but conditions there in the run-up to today’s landmark election have been not much better than they were in the worst days in Mogadishu.

The good news is that reporters in Iraq are able to stay in hotels and get hot meals — rather than camp out in courtyards and eat cold prepackaged food as they did in Somalia.

But from a security point of view, the situation in Baghdad is as bad as anything I can remember.

The biggest news organizations — such as the Associated Press, the New York Times or CNN — are based in fortified compounds with hired guards and fleets of armored cars and move about only after hours of careful planning.

A handful of freelancers and reporters from smaller news organizations have adopted the opposite tactic, growing beards or mustaches and dressing as Iraqis, hoping to remain safe by passing for locals.

Googling reporters

They are probably kidding themselves. Most reporters in Baghdad are convinced that the insurgency has spies on the support staff in all the hotels where Westerners stay, and that they are allowed to remain at large only on sufferance.

I hesitate to describe how our own staffers in Iraq are handling security; we know that the insurgents are savvy Internet users and could even be reading this column.

One correspondent has warned me to be careful how we edit his stories because the first thing the terrorists do after kidnapping a reporter is Google his name to see what he’s been writing.

It is worse for photographers than reporters. A writer can dress up and hope to blend into the crowd, simply taking in the sights and sounds and trying to memorize what people tell him.

But a camera is a dead giveaway. Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives by escorting our reporters into the streets absolutely refuse to have a photographer along.

Conditions are far better in the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq and presumably better in the mainly Shi’ite areas to the south. But apart from one well-guarded outing to the south organized by the U.S. Embassy, the Baghdad-based reporters have no safe way of getting there.

You don’t read about this in the news articles. Reporters are told over and over by editors that their personal problems should not become part of the stories they cover.

But the irony is that, by managing to do their jobs well in the face of frightful risks, these same reporters may be giving the readers a false impression that Baghdad is almost a normal city.

Hopefully, as readers go through our Iraqi election stories today and in the days to come, they will consider the dedication and courage being shown, not only by the reporters but also by the Iraqi voters, security forces and everyone else involved.

Amid the worrying, we at The Washington Times are incredibly proud of our people in Baghdad.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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