[Media-watch] Fassihi - how staying alive in Iraq became a fulltime job - Columbia Journalism Review - Nov/Dec

Tim Gopsill TimG at nuj.org.uk
Fri Oct 29 14:22:29 BST 2004


to follow this up, here is text of an item in the Victor Noir column the latest issue of the Journalist magazine

The blunder of telling the truth

YOU CAN'T get more authoritative than the Wall Street Journal, the bulletin of the world business community. But in September its authority took a terrible knock. One of its senior reporters wrote an honest account of life in Iraq.
Farnaz Fassihi is the WSJ Middle East correspondent and was reporting from Baghdad, until the end of September. She had been sending monthly emails to friends - keeping in touch, letting them know how she's doing. But one of recipients circulated an email to others and within days it had whizzed round the world via the internet, as these things can do.
"Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest," it said.
"I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in anything but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't ... "
"Iraqi officials have stopped releasing civilian casualty figures", she wrote, because the "numbers are so shocking. The insurgency is growing stronger, organized and more sophisticated every day.
"One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if anything could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle."
There was more of this, equally pained, equally persuasive. And very embarrassing for the WSJ. Its response was to ban Farnaz Fassihi from writing about Iraq and send her on a holiday until after the US Presidential election. The email had called into question the fairness of her journalism.
They did not discipline or sack her. Not at all. The paper expressed its confidence in her as a professional reporter whose private opinions would not be allowed to influence her journalism.
Many of the great and good of American journalism have come out with similar statements. But no commentary that I have read has appreciated the irony that a reporter has been silenced for writing the truth.
There is no danger that any of this stuff will appear in the Wall Street Journal nor any other major US medium.
Phew! Crisis over.

-----Original Message-----
From: Julie-ann Davies [mailto:jadavies2004 at yahoo.co.uk]
Sent: 29 October 2004 08:58
To: Media-watch
Subject: [Media-watch] Fassihi - how staying alive in Iraq became a
fulltime job - Columbia Journalism Review - Nov/Dec


Baghdad Diary
Kidnappings, executions, car bombs, ambushes. A reporter describes how 
staying alive in Iraq became a full-time job.
By Farnaz Fassihi

In August CJR asked Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal's Middle East 
correspondent, to keep a journal of her life in Iraq, where she had been 
since before the war, and where reporters were finding it difficult to do 
their job. In September, just after she sent us her report, Fassihi sent an 
e-mail to friends and relatives - something she does regularly. Usually, she 
says, these e-mails are chatty, but this one reflected her observations on 
an ominous sea-change: "The genie of terrorism, chaos, and mayhem has been 
unleashed . . . as a result of American mistakes." Within days her private 
note had popped up on the Internet and circulated far and wide, even making 
an appearance in Doonesbury. She became Exhibit A in the perennial 
discussion about the link between the published work and private opinions of 
reporters. Below is a full slice of Fassihi's reality in Baghdad, and it 
raises a question: How could she work there and not have an opinion?

Tuesday, August 17
The chartered Royal Jordanian aircraft, the only civilian flight to Iraq, 
nose-dives down onto the Baghdad airport runway in spiraling corkscrew 
turns. The force of gravity pulls me forward from my seat and I nervously 
clutch the armrests. It feels like a prolonged crash. I gaze out the window 
at the dusty horizon lined with palm trees as the plane rocks to 
forty-five-degree angles right and left. Airplanes can't land here without 
these evasive maneuvers, because rockets and mortars are fired at them every 
day. It's hard to believe that until only four months ago we could still 
travel to Iraq by car.

My team of driver and translator, Munaf and Haaqi, wait for me at the 
nearest U.S. military checkpoint to drive me to Baghdad. The highway from 
the airport to the center of town is short, but one of the most dangerous 
roads in Iraq. Insurgents hide in the date farms and attack military convoys 
with rocket-propelled grenades. I sit in our recently purchased armored car 
and feel relatively safe. I remind Munaf to stay in the center of the road 
to avoid hitting one of the landmines. A few minutes later, we find 
ourselves driving directly behind a convoy of American Humvees and tanks. I 
panic. The Americans could get attacked at any moment and we don't want to 
be caught in the crossfire. "Hang back, hang back," I tell Munaf. He slows 
down but the cars behind us don't want to pass, either. "I can't stop 
because the Americans will get suspicious and shoot," Munaf says. In Iraq, 
no one wants to drive near the Americans.

Wednesday, August 18
I spend all day at the Convention Center inside the heavily fortified 
American compound where most official activities take place. Getting there 
was risky today, because the roads leading to the checkpoint are shut down 
and we had to walk about a mile. All the security guards checking our press 
passes are wearing helmets. One of them says, "A mortar hit right here this 
morning," and points to a bunker several feet away. I walk even faster. I'm 
trying to catch the last leg of Iraq's political conference, a four-day 
marathon of meetings, dealings, and debates to hash out the selection of a 
hundred-seat national assembly. It is quite something to see all these 
people gathered in one place and freely voicing their opinions. There are 
Shiite clerics clad in sweeping robes and turbans, women candidates in skirt 
suits and high heels or the black head-to-toe hijab, Kurds in traditional 
baggy pants and fringy head wraps, and Western-educated technocrats in suits 
and ties. I spot the former interior minister, Samir Sumaida, and have tea 
with him. He is critical of the conference's shortcomings but is quick to 
list its benefits as well. "There's been a lot of manipulation and open 
cheating here, but despite all this we have a body far more representative 
than ever before," he says. "This is what democracy is all about, these are 
the first steps and we are learning." A loud boom interrupts our chat. The 
building shakes and we all run for cover. An American soldier is screaming, 
"Mortars! Get away from the windows!"

Sunday, August 22
Our house, which we share with Newsweek, has been transformed into a 
fortress. To get to it, you have to pass several roadblocks and checkpoints 
and negotiate a labyrinth of forty-foot concrete blast walls that surround 
the compound. Security has been beefed up; we have more guards at the gate 
and one on the roof. Sometimes it feels like living in a luxurious prison. I 
already miss walking. On my last trip home, I spent seven hours walking 
around Manhattan on my first day back just because I could. Security and 
administrative work takes up most of my time these past few days. I read 
through the security reports e-mailed to us every day and discuss with the 
Iraqi staff new measures to make sure everyone is safe. We have to register 
our armored car and the paperwork lacks appropriate border stamps. I can't 
get hold of the Jordanian driver who brought the car in, and don't want to 
send it back to the border, but the police keep stopping us at checkpoints 
around town threatening to confiscate the car. Last night as Haaqi pleaded 
with a cop to give us back the car documents, I sat debating whether I 
should risk standing at a police checkpoint - a common target of attacks - 
or take a chance on losing the manifest. In Iraq, we are often security 
experts first, administrators second, and reporters third. I interview an 
imam in a mosque today and I politely decline his request to turn my cell 
phone off. I can't afford to be out of touch with the bureau and my 
colleagues in case there is an emergency, I explain. Sure enough, half an 
hour later my phone rings. It's the check-after-a-boom call from my 
boyfriend, Babak Dehghanpisheh of Newsweek. "You okay? Come back home soon, 
there was an explosion somewhere," he says. We have several conversations of 
this nature each day. In Iraq there is this constant anxiety over life and 

Monday, August 23
The Najaf crisis is escalating and I want to find a way to go there. My 
friend Ivan Watson, a reporter with NPR, sent an e-mail from Najaf today 
saying the road from Baghdad was "terrifying." He lay down in the back seat 
for the entire three-hour drive, hiding under a sheet and heaps of plastic 
bags. They passed an aid convoy, including an ambulance that had been 
ambushed minutes before and was burning. Two photographer friends are stuck 
in the Imam Ali shrine right now with Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, because 
they can't walk back through the sniper alleys and into the no-man's land of 
the old city. A French photographer friend got shot in the leg by a sniper 
as she ran for cover. And worst of all, Georges Malbrunot, a French reporter 
for Le Figaro newspaper, has disappeared on the road to Najaf.

Babak and I discuss the possibility of a trip to Najaf, but both our Iraqi 
teams refuse to go. "They'll kidnap you and kill us," my driver Munaf says. 
He read in the newspaper today that an Italian journalist was kidnapped in 
Najaf and the dead body of his driver was discovered in his car.

In search of a way to write about Najaf from Baghdad, I go to the two main 
Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods to do man-in-the-street interviews, clad in a 
scarf and long robe. In Khathemiya I am able to walk around the streets and 
corner passersby for a chat. In Adamiya, a Sunni enclave where most of the 
population is anti-American, I have to be more discreet. We drive around for 
some time until we find a crowded bookshop. Haaqi goes inside for a few 
minutes to take its pulse and determines that it is safe enough. Inside, the 
bookseller chats away, praising the brave Mujahedin of Falluja and calling 
it "a nationalistic resistance," while dismissing the Sadr militia as 
opportunists who are politically motivated. I stand close to the counter, 
practically whispering in English to Haaqi and holding my notebook out of 
sight below the counter as I take quick notes.

Friday, August 27
I am in Najaf. There is a tense calm in the city today after Grand Ayatollah 
Ali Sistani arrived yesterday and brokered a peace deal between Sadr's 
militia and the Iraqi government, and, in effect, the Americans. Analysts 
are saying that, after many weeks of fighting, the crisis in Najaf was 
resolved by a frail cleric.

The drive from Baghdad to Najaf is only three hours but it took us a day to 
get here, with a night spent in Karbala. Babak and I took elaborate measures 
to disguise ourselves as locals. Despite the 130-degree heat and blazing 
sun, I didn't wear my sunglasses and threw on two thick layers of a black 
head-to-toe hijab, and then stared ahead without looking out the window, 
like a proper conservative Muslim woman. We left behind U.S. passports, 
press cards, driver's licenses, and any other document that could identify 
us as Americans. I even carry around fake press cards that say 
"International Journal Newspaper," with a picture of me in a scarf. We 
instruct our nervous driver and translator that if we are stopped on the 
way, they must say we are an Iranian couple visiting from Tehran on our way 
to Karbala. Each of us carries a small Koran in our bags.

On the way, the Iraqi police waved us through the checkpoints. Our problems 
began ten miles before Najaf. The road was blocked and the Iraqi police were 
going nuts, firing openly into the traffic. In this country, you don't know 
whom to trust and often nobody is your friend; the police checkpoint could 
easily be insurgents dressed as cops. But then we noticed a unit of Iraqi 
national guard scattered around the fields next to the highway and wondered 
if the militia had brought the fight to the highway. We had no way of 
knowing. Then gunfire broke all around us and we ducked. It's amazing how 
quickly a seemingly calm situation can turn around here.

Friday, September 10
A friend who drove through the Shiite slum of Sadr City tells me that young 
men are openly placing improvised explosive devices into the ground there. 
They melt a shallow hole in the asphalt, place the explosive, cover it with 
dirt, and put an old tire or plastic can over it to signal to the locals to 
give it wide berth. He says that on the main roads of Sadr City, there were 
a dozen landmines every ten yards. Behind the walls sat angry Iraqis ready 
to detonate them as soon as an American convoy got near.

I have wanted to go to Sadr City to see why the truce between Sadr's militia 
and the Americans isn't being honored, but am too afraid to just go. So I 
send my driver and translator to check it out first, secure an interview 
with Sadr's representative, and then come back and get me. A simple 
interview here can take hours to arrange. Half an hour later Haaqi calls. He 
is out of breath and sounds terrified. "We are at the main square in Sadr 
City, there was an American tank in front of us, and this young guy ran 
toward it with an RPG on his shoulder and attacked it," he yells into the 
phone. "The tank blew up in front of us, it's on fire, the body of the 
soldier flew in the air, and then the other soldiers started shooting into 
the crowd and at our cars." I tell him to turn the car around immediately 
and come back home. Sadr City, home to 10 percent of Iraq's population, is 
quickly being added to our list of "no-go zones" - off limits to the Iraqi 
government and the American military, and out of the reach of journalists.

I miss my mobility and being able to just get in the car and go. It's hard 
to believe that only six months ago I could take a trip to Najaf, Samarra, 
or Tikrit on a moment's notice. It seems ludicrous that last December I was 
making daily trips to Samarra to write a feature about its local soccer 
team. Now it's no-go. I remember eating kebabs in downtown Falluja last 
October and then paying a visit to one of the tribal sheikhs deep in the 
groves of Al Anbar province. I'd get my head cut off if I attempted that 
trip today.

Sunday, September 12
I am going around to various political parties to discuss how they are 
preparing for the coming elections. So far, the Shiites are far more active 
than the Sunnis. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, a Shiite 
party with close ties to Iran, has organized community meetings and training 
sessions for pollsters. Another group, Hezbeh Wafaq Islami, invited me to 
attend its campaign lecture after Friday prayers at a mosque in the town of 
Abu Ghraib, but I can't go. Abu Ghraib is dicey for foreigners. I send 
Haaqi, my translator, and give him a list of questions, a tape recorder, and 
a brief reporting lesson about paying attention to detail and color. More 
and more, we are all relying on our local staffs to do the street reporting 
and go to places we can't. This is also true for photographers. There is 
only a handful of Western shooters left in Baghdad. The freelance crowd is 
thinning out, too. It's impossible to work here without the infrastructure 
and backing of a media organization to give you the basics: a secure 
location, guards, local staff you know and trust, satellite phones, flak 
jackets, and so on. A reporter can't just parachute into Iraq anymore.

Tuesday, September 14
The insurgents have brought the war to downtown Baghdad. For the fourth day 
in a row Haifa Street, a strip of old houses and Soviet-style apartment 
blocks, is a battleground between Americans and rebels. A few days ago, I 
watched Mazen, an Arab colleague with Al Arabiya news channel, get shot by 
an American helicopter as he was doing a live stand-up on Haifa Street. He 
died on television as I sipped my morning coffee. I ask Babak if he thought 
we'd need therapy after we were done with this place. "Probably," he 
replies. My translator Haaqi can't concentrate because his parents live on 
Haifa Street and are under a dusk-to-dawn curfew and fear leaving their 
home. He can't go visit them either. This morning a massive car bomb 
exploded near police headquarters, killing forty-seven and injuring more 
than a hundred people. I go to a nearby hospital where the emergency room is 
overwhelmed and patients are piled in the hallways. Later today I go to see 
Sabah Khadem, a senior adviser to the interior ministry. He tells me the 
insurgency is spreading, getting more organized, and that the various groups 
are beginning to cooperate. I call the ministry of health for a count of 
casualties in the past four days. The numbers are astounding: 110 dead and 
more than 300 injured in Baghdad alone. In four days. So that's the story I'm 

Sunday, September 19
I am getting stir crazy from being in the house too much. I go to see my 
Iraqi Christian friends, a lovely family I befriended when I visited Iraq 
before the war. Mary Rose, a gregarious fifty-something, hugs me tightly and 
bursts into tears as soon as I walk in. "I was hoping you had left," she 
says, adding that since the two Italian women were kidnapped from their home 
last week, in broad daylight, she can't sleep for worrying about me. Sabah 
Nasser, an engineer, looks pale because he's developed a heart condition 
worrying about his two sons returning home safe every day. They are missing 
church services for the first time in their lives because of the attacks 
against Christians.

Wednesday, September 22
I am on the phone in my room when the force of the explosion throws me off 
the chair. The boom is so massive that I think the house will collapse. All 
the windows facing the garden shatter. Bricks fall out of the walls and some 
of the doors buckle. We are under mortar attack, I think, and run for the 
door. It turns out that a car bomb has exploded less than fifty yards away 
from one of the security checkpoints on our street. It was aimed at an 
American military convoy driving by on the main street. From the windows we 
can see thick black smoke and blazing red flames. Burnt, twisted pieces of 
metal, parts of the Humvee and the car, have flown over our walls and landed 
in our garden. Our neighbor's children are injured, with bad cuts from the 
broken glass. We later learn the explosion killed an American soldier and 
three Iraqi men passing by in their cars. It took a day for wailing 
relatives to pull their remains out of one burnt car. It is a miracle that 
no one from our house was hurt. In the middle of all this, the phone rings 
and it is my editor, Bill Spindle, from New York, asking me to check e-mail 
for readback on a front-page story. I stand there half scared, half in a 
daze and at loss of words. There I am clad in a flak jacket and helmet 
standing in the middle of the living room with broken glass all around, 
clutching my emergency bag - money, passport, a satellite phone - and here 
is my editor, millions of miles away from this mess, asking me to simply do 
my job. "I can't right now, I'm, ah, in the middle of a situation, a car 
bomb near the house, all okay, will call later." And I hang up. It will be 
two more days (we had to evacuate the house) before I finally step into my 
reporting shoes again and check for that readback.

Thursday, September 30
I've been at the hotel for a week now. It's the fifth or sixth time I've 
moved in Baghdad in the past sixteen months in search of a safe place. This 
is very disruptive for work. The hotel is probably not 100 percent safe 
either, but I feel safer here, perhaps because I think the odds still work 
in my favor in a hotel packed with journalists. And all my friends, with 
whom I've bonded from war zone to war zone over the past three years, are 
staying here, and every night after filing we get together to have dinner, a 
drink, or a talk. Today has been grim. A car bomb aimed at an American 
military convoy has killed thirty-four children. I rush to the Yarmulk 
Hospital, where most of the injured are taken. After covering war in 
Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, and Iraq, I have seen my share of misery. 
But there is something about children hurt in terrorism attacks that is hard 
to shake. There aren't enough beds in the emergency room for all the injured 
children and the floor is flooded with blood. Every time the doctor 
pronounces one of them dead a parent drops to the floor and wails in a 
piercing cry. We drive back from the hospital in silence. I'm leaving in two 
days after a seven-week stint. Our rotations, like those of other media 
organizations, are usually six to eight weeks in and then three to four out. 
Babak is already out and he calls every day, begging me to leave. I stayed 
behind an extra week to wrap up my election story, and then got caught up 
with deteriorating security and the house evacuation, to say nothing of the 
turmoil caused by a private e-mail that became very public. As glad as I am 
to get a vacation, there's always this bit of guilt. I am leaving behind our 
staff and our Iraqi friends.

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