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Hundreds of journalists forced into exile in five years since start of US-led invasion

(RSF/IFEX) - The first-ever detailed report on the plight of Iraqi journalists who have been forced into exile was released by Reporters Without Borders on 19 March 2008, the eve of the fifth anniversary of the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Most of these journalists fled to Jordan or Syria after receiving threats or surviving murder attempts. Hundreds are trying to live a normal life again in Amman or Damascus, or in some cases in cities in Europe and North America.

"These journalists are safe again after escaping the hell of Iraq, the world's deadliest country for the media," the press freedom organisation said. "But exile does not mean the end of their problems. Most of the journalists who flee Iraq do not find work. Many have to give up journalism. All or nearly all of them are living from hand to mouth, alone or with their families.

"Syria and Jordan are overwhelmed by the influx of Iraqi refugees. The countries of Europe, North America and the rest of the Arab world should also accept Iraqi refugees and should urgently adopt policies to make this possible. France, in particular, should make an effort. A total of 9,300 Iraqis filed asylum requests in Sweden in the first quarter of 2007, after getting visas to go there. Only 63 did so in France in the same period."

Reporters Without Borders added: "Despite all our letters to the relevant ministry, four Iraqi journalists were refused French visas last October."

Iraqi journalists are targeted by Sunni and Shiite militias, by Al-Qaeda, by the authorities, including the police, and by the US-led coalition forces. A total of 210 journalists and media assistants have been killed since March 2003. The Iraqi interior ministry has initiated investigations into their deaths but only an insignificant number of these investigations have resulted in arrests.

Journalists are also the targets of abduction by groups that are politically motivated or are just seeking ransom payments. Reporters Without Borders has recorded 87 abductions of journalists since the start of the war. The fate of 15 kidnapping victims, one of them British, is not known. Fred Nérac, a French cameraman working for the British television news company ITN, is still missing. Caught in crossfire between US and Iraqi forces on the second day of the invasion, his body has never been found.

Reporters Without Borders met with many exiled Iraqi journalists for this report. One was a correspondent for the Spanish news agency EFE who decided to leave immediately with his wife and two children after seeing his name among a list of names on a poster on the wall of his local bakery, in an Al Qaeda-controlled neighbourhood of Baghdad.

It also met with a veteran cameraman who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals. "I learned in May 2007 that the Mahdi Army was asking questions about me in my neighbourhood," he said, referring to a Shiite militia led by Moqtada al Sadr that is involved in ethnic cleansing in mixed neighbourhoods in Baghdad. "I am a journalist. I worked for a US TV station and I am Sunni. So I was a target for them. I decided at once to leave the city. I went to Syria."

Another journalist, Hussein Al Maadidi, left after incurring the wrath of the Iraqi authorities and US military by reporting that US marines deliberately shot women and children in reprisal for the killing of a marine in Haditha, in the western province of Al Anbar, in November 2005. "The police searched my home 23 times," he said. "I never went home during the last two years. I even worked under another name to avoid police reprisals. My articles about what is really happening in the west of the country upset them." He left Iraq in October 2007.

The report says: "Iraqi journalists are like the rest of their compatriots. Many have gone into exile because they have been targeted, threatened and kidnapped, or because they are tired of a security situation that is a still fraught. Jordan is the preferred exile destination for Iraqi journalists. It is still the place where they can best get by. Syria is a tougher place for the refugees. The authorities in both Amman and Damascus allow Iraqi journalists to work freely as long as they limit themselves to covering Iraqi affairs and do not criticise the host countries."

Only a very small proportion of the exiled Iraqi journalists in Europe manage to keep working in journalism. Ahmed Al-Allef was a fixer for many foreign news media including the Paris-based daily "Le Monde". Now in France, he wants to go back to studying journalism with the long-term goal of working for a French news organisation.

He says he is aware of all the difficulties he is facing. "I have lost my home, my car and my savings," he told Reporters Without Borders. "My family is spread over the four corners of the globe. Nonetheless, I want to start a new life and I am doing my best to achieve it by learning French." Supported by leading European news media, he managed to obtain refugee status in seven months.

To read the full report, see: http://www.rsf.org/IMG/pdf/RapportRefugies_GB.pdf

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