Reuters' bureau chief on reporting from Baghdad

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq three years ago Reuters has lost four journalists in Iraq — more than any other western media organisation.

So heading up its Baghdad bureau is probably not one of the most enviable jobs in journalism.

Alastair Macdonald, however, volunteered for the job and heads up a team of around 70 — mainly Iraqi journalists — reporting on perhaps the most dangerous place on Earth.

Based in a fortified compound on a once-normal Baghdad street — shared with other news organisations and an embassy — Macdonald leads a team which includes former wedding photographers, translators and even a hairdresser, doing their best to provide the closest thing Iraq has to a national news service.

Reuters has a long history of reporting from Iraq — dating back to at least 1919 — but the operation changed dramatically after the recent Western invasion. The bureau relocated from the Information Ministry to the now infamous Palestine Hotel, where a US tank shell killed Macdonald's friend, the Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, and Spanish TV cameraman José Couso on 8 April 2003.

Although Macdonald has been in Iraq full-time since June 2005, he has been back and forth to the country since the start of the war. He was involved in setting up the current Reuters bureau — which follows the same model as most other countries in the world. A small group of four international journalists leads up a team of Iraqi stringers and staffers spread out across the country.

Macdonald began his career as a financial journalist on banking magazine Euromoney — a far cry from his current job — and joined Reuters in 1990 as an economics correspondent.

He explains how murder and mayhem not only dominate the Reuters Iraq newswire, but office life as well.

"There are no local wires — no TASS — no way of knowing what's going on in Iraq without knowing it first hand

We have people in 19 or 20 cities — ideally a cameraman, photographer and reporter — although in some places one or two people will cover more than one specialisation.

In the last two or three months state TV has started to break news, but that's a novelty. Most of the stories on state TV come from Reuters or other agencies.

Hard news in terms of "this is what happened in Iraq yesterday" tends to come from ourselves or one of the other two international agencies — it's the same with TV footage.

To some extent going out on the streets has become so dangerous that big agencies are providing most of the footage even for Iraqi TV channels."

"With Reuters, everybody's a journalist — we try to treat everybody more or less the same.

Since we don't have a language barrier and are generally working in the local language, we don't have that layer of translators.

A lot of people who work for us would have worked for us for 10, 15 or 20 years.

It hasn't been easy for us or anybody else to find experienced professional journalists who are up to the standard that we would want.

We give them different kinds of experience and on-the-job training."

"I've got to stress that we are doing a kind of journalism that's not been practised in Iraq for a long time.

A lot of journalists who worked under the old regime are not expecially well suited to do the sort of work we do.

We've been pretty successful, we have a good number of people here doing a fantastic job.

We do it all over the world. The emphasis is on finding good people who understand what's going on in the community and can communicate it to an outsider.

We have a number of young people who were students and are young, fresh and eager, and came in pretty much new to journalism.

We do a line in cameramen and photographers who have been wedding photographers — not necessarily people with journalistic experience, but they know how to use a camera. Some have turned into incredibly brave and talented makers of images.

Two or three people in our team of stills photographers are winning prizes and are now very creative photographers. We've got cameramen doing very well with fairly basic video cameras.

We have people from a range of other occupations in Baghdad, some have been translators who have a strength in being able to communicate in English.

I don't speak Arabic, which is unusual, but the cross section of people who both speak Arabic and are willing to work in Baghdad is a little bit thin."

"We sometimes have to start early because there are explosions early in the morning, but things rarely happen before 7am.

We have stringers around the country phoning in if things happen. Quite a lot of days we'll get a call saying there's been a bomb or a big explosion in Baghdad.

We try to get multiple sources on everything — it's our experience that no one source is ever 100 per cent reliable in the confusion that surrounds a lot of what's going on. We have a lot of sources in the police and security forces. We rarely put out a story based on just one of them.

If we think it's a biggish attack we will send out reporters — but the threshold for that has gone up in the last three years."

"Our reporters are responding like the fire brigade, figuring which direction to head in.

We rarely send out reporters unless it's big, we try to keep the number of people going to these things to a minimum. We have had a number of close calls where one bomb goes off, but that's just to suck people in and then another bomb goes off.

From Iraq people expect us to have a daily trunk story, which is lodged in the morning on a bombing and will be updated two or three times on a quiet day, and maybe 15 times on a very busy day."

"We mainly use local reporters, Arab reporters can go out and talk to people.

One of the big stories is the refugee crisis, people being threatened and having to leave their areas.

There are also vast queues of people outside the passport offices, people are leaving the country.

If it's a quiet day, we have cameramen running around and looking for stuff. It may not always be a story, but it can give you a very interesting picture of daily life, which is hard for a news story to convey."

“Athough it’s a long-standing bureau — we had to expand following the outbreak of the war

We had to expand our staff, so we advertised, interviewed people and also relied on existing staff to go out and build up a network. We have people who are contacts of contacts."

"There is a political life going on in the Green Zone, press conferences, parliament — we spend a lot of time just working the phones trying to get a sense of what the government's up to.

A lot of Reuters in Baghdad is operating to satisfy our energy clients and the grain market in Chicago.

Iraq is one of the world's biggest buyers of wheat because of the rationing system set up under Saddam.

Although Iraq is not a very big country — 25 or 26 million people — all wheat and rice is bought by the state under this rationing system. If Iraq says it's going to buy an amount of wheat this will move markets in Chicago.

We also have big clients in the States very interested in the American military story."

"We have first-hand experience of US soldiers shooting our staff and we have been ourselves publicly critical of their investigation process.

A year ago one of our TV cameramen was shot dead by American soldiers, but the official investigation exonerated the US soldiers. We have very strong evidence the US soliders did break their own rules.

We have lost four people since the start of the war, all of them to American fire — although with one of them there was some doubt.

We've raised concerns about the extent to which the US military is holding their soldiers accountable."

"We are very conscious of how much goes unreported.

One thing we can be absolutely sure of, as the people doing most reporting from Iraq, is most stuff goes under-reported, because we don't have the resources to be everywhere.

Virtually every journalist I speak to has had some kind of threat — a lot of Iraqi journalists have been killed or threatened coming out of their houses.

People get menacing phone calls, people get named on websites. Reuters has been criticised by pretty much every faction at some stage.

A lot of people don't get bylines because they want to be anonymous, people are permanently at risk of being followed to where they live, and they have to be extremely discreet about what they do.

The risk of a journalist being a victim of one of the dozens of daily assassinations is much bigger than for someone not doing our job — there is the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and just being blown up.

We've had a number of people shot and wounded in the last few weeks alone."

"We make use of publicity trips when offered by embassies and the military.

If that was the only reporting we did from Iraq we'd have a very strange view of things, but it means we can have the opportunity to go in a helicopter and see somewhere else in Iraq.

The US embassy were very pleased to show us the refurbishment of Baghdad Central railway station.

Unfortunately, security is so bad that there are no trains, so our story was about the railway station that can't go anywhere.

I thought that was quite an interesting story, I don't think the person who organised the trip was too pleased with the angle we took, but I frankly couldn't see any other honest angle we could take."

"Foreigners are particularly at risk of kidnapping, it would be deeply damaging to our ability to report what else is going on if one of us was kidnapped.

We have a couple of white Landrovers, which are useless because they make very good targets.

We scrapped those in favour of discreet Mercedes and BMWs. We train drivers in techniques for avoiding getting kidnapped and we have security advisors who will often travel with us discreetly in the background.We always use at least two cars.

There are things we can do to minimise the risks.

Don't spend too long in any one place. One has to remember that most people are entirely trustworthy and friendly — but you can't stay anywhere too long because people have telephones and word gets out.

Talking to politicians, they all live in fortified compounds, and inside the compound we are as safe as we are in our own compund.

The only way of getting out of Baghdad is by air — the roads in and out are just so dangerous you can't do it."

"My daily mission is to make sure that the voices of people in Iraq are heard — that we are going out and talking to Iraqis about what they think and what they feel.

We talked to a group of 20 people in our office, and deliberately stripped out things that happened to them because they were journalists, every single one of them could tell you a horrible story about somebody they knew pretty well being killed, kidnapped or blown up.

In Baghdad, it is pretty much impossible to find somebody who has not been extremely personally affected by violence.

The mayhem going on in this city is coming into our office every day. If we were trying to do this by telephone, we wouldn't have that sense of what is going on.

I've sat in the office and on occasion watched colleagues take calls from relatives, one was recently told their sister-in-law had been murdered.

Another colleague got a phone call from his wife saying she had just been blown up. She was minding her own business when a bomb went off in her street.

It happens every day and it informs the rest of what we know and report about. Office life is an important barometer of what's going on in the city.

We are not sitting in some international hotel insulated from life, we are in a little community and we have staff in all parts of Baghdad and all over the country telling us what's going on."

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