‘Hotel Journalism’ Dictates Coverage of Iraq

“Hotel journalism” is the only word for it. More and more, Western reporters in Baghdad are reporting from their hotels rather than the streets of Iraq’s towns and cities. Some are accompanied everywhere by hired and heavily armed Western mercenaries. A few live in local offices from which their editors refuse them permission to leave. Most use Iraqi “stringers” — part-time correspondents who risk their lives to conduct interviews for American or British journalists — and none can contemplate a journey outside the capital without days of preparation unless they “embed” themselves with American or British forces.

Rarely, if ever, has a war been covered by reporters in so distant and restricted a way. New York Times correspondents live in Baghdad behind a massive stockade with four watchtowers, protected by locally hired, rifle-toting security men, complete with “NYT” T-shirts. Journalists with America’s NBC television chain are holed up in a hotel with an iron grill over their door, forbidden by their security advisers to visit the swimming pool or the restaurant, “let alone the rest of Baghdad”, lest they are attacked. Several Western journalists simply do not leave their rooms while on station in Baghdad.

So grave are the threats to Western journalists that some television stations are talking of withdrawing their reporters and crews altogether. Amid an Iraqi resistance where Westerners — and many Arabs as well as other foreigners — are kidnapped and killed, reporting this war is becoming close to impossible. The murder, on videotape, of an Italian correspondent, the cold-blooded killing of one of Poland’s top reporters and his Bulgarian cameraman, and the equally bloody assault on a Japanese reporter on Highway 8 south of Baghdad last year have persuaded many journalists that a large dose of discretion is the better part of valor.

The Independent, along with several other British and American papers, still covers stories in Baghdad in person, moving with hesitation — not to mention trepidation — through the streets of a city which is slowly being taken over by the Iraqi resistance. Only six months ago, it was still possible to leave Baghdad in the morning, drive to Mosul or Najaf or other major cities to cover a story, and return by evening. By August, it was taking me two weeks to negotiate my dubious safety for a mere 80-mile journey outside Baghdad. I found the military checkpoints on the motorways deserted, the roads lined with smashed American trucks and burned-out police vehicles. Today, it is almost impossible. Drivers and translators working for newspapers and television companies are threatened with death. Several have asked to be relieved of their duties on Jan. 30 lest they be recognized on the streets during Iraq’s elections.

In the brutal 1990s war in Algeria, at least 42 local reporters were murdered and a French cameraman was shot to death in the Algiers Casbah. But the Algerian security forces could still give a minimum of protection to reporters. In Iraq, they cannot even protect themselves. The police and the Iraqi National Guard — much trumpeted by the Americans as the men who will take over after an American withdrawal — are heavily infiltrated by the Iraqi resistance. Checkpoints may be manned by policemen but it is now unclear just who the cops are working for. US troops operating in and around Baghdad are now avoided by Western journalists, as much as they are by Iraqis because of the indiscipline with which they open fire on civilians.

So questions are being asked. What is a reporter’s life worth? Is the story worth the risk? And, much more seriously from an ethical point of view, why don’t more journalists report on the restrictions under which they operate? During the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, editors often insisted on prefacing journalists’ dispatches from Saddam’s Iraq by talking abut the restrictions under which they were operating. But today — when our movements are much more circumscribed — no such “health warning” accompanies their reports. In many cases, viewers and readers are left with the impression that the journalist is free to travel around Iraq to check out the stories which he or she confidently files each day. Not so.

“The United States military couldn’t be happier with this situation,” a long-time American correspondent in Baghdad says. “They know that if they bomb a house of innocent people, they can claim it was a ‘terrorist’ base and get away with it. They don’t want us roaming around Iraq and so the ‘terrorist’ threat is great news for them. They can claim they’ve shot 600 or 1,000 Iraqi resistance fighters and we have no way of checking because we can’t go to the cemetery or visit the hospitals because we don’t want to get kidnapped and have our throats cut.”

Thus, many reporters are now reduced to telephoning the American military or the Iraqi “interim” government for information from their hotel rooms, receiving “facts” from men and women who are even more isolated from Iraq in the Baghdad “Green Zone” around Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace than are the journalists. Or they take reports from their correspondents who are “embedded” with American troops and who will, necessarily, only get the American side of the story.

Yes, it is still possible to report from the street in Baghdad. But fewer and fewer of us are doing this, and there may come a time when we have to balance the worth of our reports against the risk to our lives. We haven’t reached that point yet. So far, we still see a little more of Iraq than the people who claim to be running this country.

Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media