“It’s really easy to get killed in Iraq,” says Phillip Robertson, a freelancer who covered the war for Salon and wrote the introduction to the book Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
“They want to kill you. All you have to do is give them a chance and somebody will kill you or kidnap you.” Mr. Robertson had his own near-kidnap experience, but he managed to get away. His driver’s car was totaled, but Salon paid for a replacement. “No one has ever been killed because of me,” he says. “And I’m very, very proud of that. There have been repercussions because of my stories but I can look you in the eye and say no one has been seriously hurt because of me.”
One of the more serious challenges for journalists in Iraq is finding locals who can help them get around, act as translators or liaisons, and, when necessary, ensure that they survive such incidents.
Bobby Ghosh, Time‘s most recent Baghdad bureau chief, had his own terrifying experience as he was leaving the Green Zone with his bureau manager, an older local Iraqi who has adopted the affectation of carrying a walking stick wherever he goes to evoke deference as an elder. Mr. Ghosh and his manager were attacked by a group of teenagers who began hitting Mr. Ghosh with the butts of their Kalashnikovs. The manager, in turn, began whacking the attackers with his walking stick.
“I was in shock,” Mr. Ghosh remembers. “I looked at him and thought, ‘Why is he doing that? Provoking these people.’ He knew what he was doing. By playing this sort of cantankerous old man, he knew what sort of response he’d get. And sure enough, these kids, they began to say, ‘Oh, grandpa, don’t worry. We won’t hurt him.’
“It was all I could to stop from peeing in my pants, frankly. I was just completely terrified.”
Mr. Ghosh, like so many journalists who’ve covered Iraq, relies heavily on his Iraqi staff, none of whom previously worked in journalism (one was a chicken farmer, another worked in the military), but, he says, “they’ve instinctively become journalists.”
“We don’t as a rule use our Iraqi staffers as reporters unless we absolutely have to. But when we do, they do a terrific job.”
With journalists as potential kidnap targets and danger all around, who would want a job working for a Western bureau? “They need to have a certain appetite for danger,” according to Mr. Ghosh. “There’s no way to varnish that.”
“These guys have saved our lives so many times.”
It’s not always heroic, according to Patrick Graham, who covered the war for Harper’s and others. “There were a lot of journalists who were being led around by their nose by just really corrupt drivers. There was a kind of driver mafia,” he says.
Phillip Robertson would agree. “Not all of these guys are trustworthy,” he says. “You’re kind of getting, on one level, desperate Iraqis. In a war of occupation, working for Westerners is not really looked upon well. So, what kind of people do you get who are willing to do that? People who really want the money. They’re motivated by money. Not all of them, but some of them and it’s a real problem.”
“When you go out in the field and you’re bringing somebody with you. … He has a couple of choices: He can try to keep his job with a Western news agency a secret, which lasts I don’t know how long. Not very long. How long is that secret gonna stay? Or he can be known to the armed groups and trade information to them.”
Mr. Robertson cites the Vietnam-era example of the Associated Press, which was infiltrated by a Communist double agent, Pham Xuan An. “Western news agencies have problems with their stringers and their employes and it’s not publicly talked about–it probably shouldn’t be. They make mistakes. They didn’t go to Columbia J-school. They don’t know. AP gets burned by bogus information all the time. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a news organization.”
“I don’t have that many people there that I really trust,” he says. “It might just be my style of working with people: I burn them out.”
Others have a different approach. William Langewiesche, who covered the war for The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, considers his contacts in Baghdad friends. He says the relationships with his drivers, translators, and security was non-hierarchical in every way: “I trusted them as they trusted me.”
One of them is “almost like a brother” to Mr. Langewiesche.
“We’d talk a lot about what we’re looking at, what’s going on. He was strongly tied in with the Sunni thing, so he was able to tell me many things that I did write about. As time went on, I trusted his judgment. When he was telling me something was happening, I knew enough to listen very carefully to it.
“He would tell me something and six months later or one year later, it would make the news.”
The Iraqis also serve the valuable function of being keepers of the memory, especially in bureaus where reporters are cycling in and out and can miss changes that might mean the difference between life and death. “They’re the ones who’ve been through the whole thing,” says Time‘s Bobby Ghosh.
The New Yorker‘s George Packer sees them as serving a valuable function in the future as well. “I will be very eager to see the books that come from Iraqis in the years to come,” he says. “I think there will be some. They will be different. Some of them I think will be able to do it. They’ll have the literary ability to do it.”
“It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s a lot harder, not necessarily in terms of risk, but in what the writing job requires. A lot harder than filing a day story or something. They will be the voices that will come closest and we haven’t really heard much from them yet. But we will. And I really look forward to that.”