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Journalists must be able to witness the war

By Judit Neurink 15/12/2016

For over ten days the Iraqi arm’s Golden Brigade has refused to allow foreign journalists into eastern Mosul to cover the battle against ISIS.

The army is upset about the high death toll published by the foreign media, fearing that it is something ISIS could use in its propaganda. The order to ban the media has supposedly come from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Dozens of journalists have come to Iraq to report the war by embedding with the Golden Brigade, other divisions of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia.

Since the Peshmerga have finished most of their fight, the attention now is mainly on the Iraqi army in Mosul.

These are stories of soldiers’ heroism, of civilian suffering, of ISIS method of fighting and of weapons and explosives factories.

It is clear that the use of car-bombs and snipers has claimed the lives of hundreds of people with ISIS even shooting at playing children, but the army death toll has remained a secret.

And I do not think the only concern is ISIS propaganda.

Perhaps it is more a matter of pride: with around a thousand ISIS fighters killed, the thought that the well trained and equipped Iraqi Special Forces seem to have lost even more is painful.

The figure of over 1,600 dead that was published is said to apply not only to them, but also other army brigades and the Hashd al-Shaabi. We do not even know that for a fact.

There is another important issue here: To report about a war is to be able to show the world how the battle is fought.

In the Iraqi situation where Sunnis and Shiites are being played out against each other, it’s important that someone, and preferably an independent press witnesses how the mostly Shiite soldiers are treating the Sunni inhabitants of Mosul.

Because for some Iraqi Shiites, whoever stayed in Mosul was working with ISIS – even though for many of them it was simply a matter of trying to survive the occupation by an violent and brutal group.

And even for those who did collaborate with the enemy, the Geneva Conventions state that they should be treated humanely and tried in a court of justice for what they did.

For that reason, it is problematic that the press is now banned from witnessing the fight.

Moreover: journalists have told me privately, and others did so to human rights activists, that they have seen abuses such as Sunni men arrested on suspicion of working with ISIS, beaten and humiliated by soldiers.

We know the stories about the hundreds of men who are still missing after the Hashd al-Shaabi took over Sunni towns like Tikrit, Falluja, and Ramadi.

Journalists being there to report on what they see may work to prevent the abuses, and at the same time, they can report on the people, the hunger, lack of electricity and water, the way aid organizations manage to reach them or not.

A war cannot be covered only from the fringes, with interviews with spokesmen and victims. It needs to be done on the spot.

During the two months of the battle at least two journalists have been killed and a number injured. But the ban was not for their safety, which is clear from the fact the local press can still go.

The local press is mostly affiliated with parties and groups, and can be controlled in what they publish.

The army can ban journalists who may misbehave but it is not acceptable to ban those whose job it is to witness and report on the war but you do not like what they publish.

Banning the press is something for groups like ISIS, who do not want honest and independent reporting on their activities.

The Iraqi army does not want being compared to ISIS, and they should simply admit that the battle is hard and bloody, and has indeed cost the lives of many of its troops.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.

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