The death of two journalists in Mosul has highlighted once more the particular dangers of covering the battle to recapture the Iraqi city from Islamic State group fighters.
A mine blast killed Iraqi Kurdish journalist Bakhtiyar Addad, 28, on Monday. His French colleague Stephan Villeneuve later died of his wounds and two other French journalists were wounded.
They were accompanying Iraqi special forces during the battle for the city, where the jihadists are using around 100,000 civilians as “human shields”, according to the UN.
These latest deaths brought the toll for journalists in Iraq to 28 killed since 2014, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based media rights watchdog.
It was RSF — it is known by its French acronym — that broke the news of their deaths along with broadcaster France Televisions.
“Iraq is one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists,” said RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
“In 2015 and 2016, it was one of the three countries where the most journalists were killed in the course of their work.”
Covering the battle for Mosul, especially in the narrow streets of the Old City, where the last jihadists are holed up, is particularly risky.
Ziad Al-Ajili, of Iraq’s Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said nine journalists — eight of them Iraqi — had now died covering the battle for the city since it began last autumn.
“It is one of the most dangerous places to cover,” said Etienne Leenhardt, head of reportages at France Televisions.
“It is impossible to foresee what might happen: there are snipers waiting in ambush, drones that can drop explosive charges on your vehicle.”
“It’s a labyrinth,” said Leenhardt. “A maze of little streets and lanes, with civilians in the middle. You have no visibility.”
“Mosul, it’s the final combat for a few hundred jihadists who are playing their last hand to save their ‘capital’,” veteran correspondent Georges Malbrunot told AFP.
Malbrunot, a reporter for French daily Le Figaro, who in 2004 was held hostage for four months by jihadists in Iraq, still makes regular visits to the troubled country.
“They are trying to inflict the maximum damage, and human life has no value for them,” he said of the jihadists.
The news media, particularly Iraqi journalists, paid a heavy price when IS fighters first captured Mosul in 2014.
“Mosul was subjected to a journalistic cleansing, with most journalists forced into exile,” said RSF’s Deloire. The jihadists still hold at least 10 journalists hostage, he added.
But the journalists covering the battle for the city were volunteers, said Leenhardt at France Televisions — and they were under strict orders when it came to wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests. They also carried a tracker so they could be located if the need arose.
But there are limits.
“One of our teams went to Raqa (in neighbouring Syria) last week, and we decided to get them out after 48 hours, because we considered it was not a ‘reasonable’ risk,” he said.
But these conflicts had to be covered, he stressed.
“We have to cover the suffering of civilians, the political stakes, the ethnic conflicts that arise, so that it doesn’t fall under the radar,” he said.
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