From Iraq and back - Page 2

Omar Fekeiki's work with the Washington Post in his native country brought him death threats and a rare ticket to UC Berkeley. So why does he want to return?
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The Post had enough translators. "He was pretty young, just out of school," Chandrasekaran told the Guardian. The Post did, however, make a point of noting the directions to the young man's house in case it ever needed him. In a matter of days the paper was knocking on his door.

Initially, Fekeiki continued working as a translator but quickly graduated to fixer, a sort of guide to the Post journalists — scouting out stories, digging up contacts, arranging transportation and interviews. Within weeks he was the bureau's office manager, overseeing a busy newsroom of 42 American and Iraqi journalists who were all older than him and vastly more experienced.

Chandrasekaran says one thing he always told his Post colleagues was to listen to the Iraqi staff. "They have a better sense of when something is going bad. I empowered people like Omar to put their foot down, to say no."

That empowerment, coupled with the important tasks of monitoring news wires and Iraqi and American television stations, dispatching staff to daily disasters, and maintaining order in the office, suited Fekeiki. He rose to the challenge and fell in love with his job. Pretty soon he was contributing to stories, then writing his own and, to his surprise, really enjoying the work.

Raised by a family of journalists and writers, Fekeiki never thought he'd be one. His father, a former politician and vocal critic of Hussein, had lived the nomadic life of an exile as a punishment for his writing. Fekeiki grew up with wiretapped phones, regular house searches, and a father with his neck in a threatened noose. He was taught that if you wrote what the government approved, you'd be wasting your time. If you didn't, you'd be killed.

The motives have changed, but the risk remains. Life was always dicey. Fekeiki was raised with the fear that he would "disappear" if he weren't carrying the proper card identifying him as a student, not a soldier. Censorship was part of life.

"If you repeat what we say in this house, you will get killed," he was told by his parents. "Imagine saying that to a five-year-old?" he asks. "I had to live with fear all the time."

He could never slip — it would put his family in grave risk. But now, taking up the family tradition and being a journalist in his native country is almost like asking to die.

DEADLY PROFESSION

Targeted violence toward news gatherers is on the rise everywhere, and 2006 was the deadliest year for journalists since 1994, mostly because of Iraq. Though statistics vary depending on the definition of journalist, Reporters Without Borders says 155 journalists and media staff have been killed during the four years of Iraq War coverage. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which investigates every claim and only counts confirmed deaths of credentialed reporters, puts the figure at 97. Both counts already lap the Vietnam War's 20-year tally of 66, and both organizations say the fallen are overwhelmingly Iraqi.

"I'm hard-pressed to think of a more dangerous profession in the world today than being an Iraqi journalist in Iraq," said Chandrasekaran, who was bureau chief there for 18 months and has covered past conflicts in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. "By spring of 2004 it was too dangerous for Western reporters out in the street."

So journalists came to depend even more on the Iraqis, who were about the only ones able to do on-the-ground reporting after anti-American sentiments and violence took hold.

"You cannot stand in a Baghdad street and do a piece for camera," Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told us. "An Iraqi journalist can blend in with the local population. They're the only ones that can literally move around....