Italian Media Shaken by Iraq

ROME - It was the last dispatch sent by Italian reporter Renato Caprile before he left Baghdad last week.

"Don't believe those who say the situation in Iraq can be covered from abroad," he wrote in La Republica before leaving with all other Italian journalists. "Far from staying confined in hotels, we maintained contact with local sources and made discreet visits to local people for interviews."

Italian journalists were only among the latest to leave; most foreign journalists had left earlier. As many as 47 journalists or media assistants have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF after its French name Reporters sans Frontieres).

The Italian journalists were asked to leave Iraq following the abduction of Il Manifesto correspondent Giuliana Sgrena Feb. 4. Sgrena had given voice to Iraqi victims through her dispatches from before the invasion. She was reputed to have wide contacts within Iraq.

Sgrena was abducted a month after French journalist Florence Aubenas and her Iraqi interpreter Hussein Hanoun went missing. Three more journalists were abducted after Sgrena. Two of them, Indonesian correspondent Meutya Hafid and cameraman Budiyanto, were released shortly after. Raeda Wazzan, a presenter with the state-funded Iraqi television channel Iraqiya, was kidnapped Feb. 20 and executed a few days later.

It is not always the armed groups that journalists have had to fear. About 60 percent of the journalists killed in Iraq were killed by armed groups. But no journalist has forgotten how some of the others died – in U.S. attacks on Hotel Palestine and on the offices of al-Jazeera. U.S. officials have often accused Arab journalists of collaborating with terrorists.

In the face of such dangers, questions arose how willingly Italian journalists left Iraq. "I didn't see many Italian journalists fighting for doing their job," Archangelo Ferri from the media freedom group Article 21 told IPS.

But Ferri pointed also to instances where Italian journalists were given no option. Duilio Giammaria from the Italian public television network RAI was stopped in Dubai from leaving for Iraq last week. Lorenzo Cremonesi from the daily Corriere Della Sera was ordered back by his editor following a phone call from the prime minister's office, Ferri said.

Either way this means that Italy is the only country with troops in Iraq but no journalist reporting out of it. "We have to rely on international news agencies and on video shots distributed by military commanders," Ferri said.

This suits the military. Little news, for instance, is coming out of Ramadi, where U.S. troops are engaged in a heavy operation against Sunni armed groups, says Toni Fontana from L'Unita daily.

The absence of media could suit the military-backed administration in other ways too. Shortly before Christmas, the TV program Ballaro revealed that the governor of Nasiriya had not received any of the relief funds the Italian government had allocated for the region.

The military now refuses to fly in correspondents, and the access roads controlled by armed opposition groups are too dangerous.

"Iraq is the world crossroads for military, political, and economic issues, and we cannot report from there," Ferri said.

Inevitably, news on Iraq has slipped to the inside pages of newspapers. No one asks questions any more about relief money, or about the health of Italian soldiers posted in Iraq. Eight soldiers who returned from Iraq last year died of Hodgkin's lymphoma, suspected to have been caused by exposure to depleted uranium.

Italian media silence is extending also to silence over new legislation proposed to censor media covering the military.

The proposed new legislation would forbid anybody from giving out sensitive information on military issues, even on national territory, Elettra Deiana, deputy from the opposition party Rifondazione Communista and member of the Defense Commission, told IPS.

It would bar for instance any reporting on the effect of depleted uranium on the health of troops, or of harassment within military barracks unless such reports are approved by military authorities. Military personnel or civilians who break the law could face up to 20 years in a military prison.

The Defense Commission has approved for now an amendment by Deiana that would restrict these powers. But the original text could be pushed through again by a parliamentary majority. Deiana said, however, that "some members of parties in power are doubtful about this bill."

This entire controversy has been covered fully only by a few left-wing dailies.

President of the Republic Carlo in Italy, Azeglio Ciampi, has asked Italian media to stand "with the back straight." Pope John Paul II said in his sermon Jan. 25 that "the media can and must promote justice and solidarity, report events accurately, analyze situations fully, and give voice to different opinions."

The commission for democracy from the Council of Europe has taken the unprecedented step of investigating whether Italian media is upholding the values of pluralism and democracy. This is the first time that a country that was among the founders of the European Union faces such an inquiry.

This, too, was reported significantly by only a few.

Independent reporting has emerged as an issue now within Italy. In Iraq, the only Italian journalist still present is no longer there of her own will – and she has her hands tied.

March 1, 2005 by Elisa Marincola
(Inter Press Service)

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