Interview with Nabil Khatib, Executive Editor of Al Arabiya

The war in Iraq has taken a grisly toll on journalists. Reporters Without Borders has called it the deadliest conflict for journalists since World War II. For Pan-Arab news network Al Arabiya, the violence has hit home, killing at least 11 of its staff in Iraq and severely limiting the network’s ability to cover the war. Now down to a bare-bones crew and relying mostly on freelancers, Al Arabiya is struggling to report a war growing more complicated and grim by the day. TBS senior editor Lawrence Pintak talked to Al Arabiya executive editor Nabil Khatib about the challenges facing Arab media in covering a war so central to the region and so important to Arab audiences, but so dangerous to journalists.

TBS: Iraq has been brutal for Al Arabiya, has it not?

NK: Yes it was of course. Maybe it was for everybody, but mostly for Al Arabiya because Al Arabiya has lost 11 colleagues who died because they were covering what’s going on there from all sides and trying to be balanced and fair. Unfortunately, the situation puts you in a dilemma that if you are trying to be balanced, you are getting fire from all parties. We lost these 11 and also we have another two colleagues who came under fire in attempts to assassinate them, so one of them got paralyzed and is now in a wheelchair, and the other is too emotionally scared to be at work, so he’s not working anymore. Another one fled to Beirut because they threatened to shoot him. So in general it is a very worrying situation where you get confused and worried anytime you think to assign anybody to do anything in Iraq.

TBS: Why do you think journalists are such targets?

NK: I have a theory, personally. The fight in Iraq is unfair, to the point where different parties are not acting according to any international standards, so it is convenient for those fighting parties to scare journalists in order to get away with what they are doing Everybody now knows that Tarek Ayyoub got shot by American fire, and in this case you only have no choice except to be embedded with American troops in order to follow a story where the American troops are involved. When it comes to insurgents, it is even much worse and more complicated because they have no rules whatsoever to control their actions, so they just treat the journalists as enemies. And sometimes they will be targeting journalists by name because they are not happy with his or her coverage, or sometimes they will be just targeting them just to scare journalists in general. You will never be able to please those fighting parties, because if you please one it will not be fair, and you will be biased to a party and then the other party will target you. But the overall outcome of that is a very convenient situation for fighting parties where they are doing whatever the want, and Iraq is not being covered well by anybody anymore. You don’t know what’s the situation with the civilians, and you must cover the civilians and know how they are living to judge the political and economic situation. The (insurgents) succeeded in getting the journalists away after killing tens of them.

TBS: It would seem on the surface that it would be in the interest of the fighting parties—I mean, certainly the insurgents—for Arab media to be showing what’s going on with the average citizen. Why do you think they don’t want that?

NK: I don’t think that they are interested to show what’s going on with the citizens because there are two lives going on in Iraq parallel to each other. One is so-called normal life, where people are trying to work and to survive and there are construction efforts, and they don’t want this part to be shown. The other part is that it’s not convenient for them to have journalists covering what’s going on if civilians are being targeted specifically, and mostly by insurgents in most parts of Iraq. There are groups that are not motivated by any political agenda, they are just criminals. And there are insurgents who belong to different groups that are fighting each other. I doubt that they are interested to show what’s really going on with civilians—quite the opposite. They created now a situation, intentionally, where nobody feels himself safe, and it’s not a situation that’s good to show in the media. The insurgents who are mainly fighting the Americans and the foreign troops in Iraq, they are doing much better than the Americans themselves in terms of imposing their activities on the media agenda by having very good Web sites where they are all ready to publish any activity just one hour or two later. They will supply you with video material and everything that is necessary for you to publish or broadcast their activity. I mean, these insurgents have their own media apparatus that is functioning well according to their own status and they will not be happy to have somebody who will be doing it independently.

TBS: So you’re their competition now? They consider you and other Arab media to be their competition now that they have their own media infrastructure?

NK: No, they have their own media infrastructure that is acting as their own news agency. They supply the media. And they pressure you to take all of what they are producing and deal with it without questioning. Let me just explain that. For example, a year ago and more they used to kidnap some journalists and activists and then they would give a long statement by a masked man with a Kalashnikov in his hand and in the other hand the kidnapped guy. And you would have to show all of that part of the tape, because they wanted you to show all of their statement on your screen. Of course we stopped showing that. And we take only what has an editorial or news value in that statement if there is any, so they got angry and they are looking for ways to pressure us. From time to time we get messages indirectly saying, “You can work safely in Iraq if you will just go along with us, and you will air whatever we supply you with.” Of course we refuse, because we don’t want to be used by any party, whoever it is. So we pay the price.

TBS: So how do you cover Iraq? How do you as an editor say, “Yes, I’m going to send people in there and I know that they’re going to be in this kind of danger”?

NK: I don’t do that anymore. If there is an event that needs to be covered, I call my colleagues in Baghdad and ask them how much do they think this could be safe. Most of the time it’s not safe, so we just don’t cover it. And if it is safe, then we cover it. When correspondent Atwar Bahgat and her crew were killed in Samarra, I asked my guys, “Is it safe to go to Samarra?” And they said, “Yes it is, we will be sending somebody who is originally from Samarra.” And Atwar was very enthusiastic to go there and to cover that area because she belongs to that area and she felt that she would be safe. Everybody knows what happened that day when she was killed with her two colleagues. So after that, I don’t even have the courage to tell the guys, "If you feel safe just go". Even if they say, “Yes, it is safe,” I keep questioning. And this will be at the expense of our covering Iraq. Now we are trying to keep our colleagues in a very low profile where they don’t cover everything, but at least cover people’s lives, features. We send freelancers a shot list and they will shoot and send back the material here (at Arabiya headquarters in Dubai) and we will do it in-house by an in-house reporter rather than having a reporter do it there. So you feel as if you are covering an area as if through glass. I mean your reporter is not there to pass on the feelings, the impressions he gets. You just send this request, like fast food, asking somebody to shoot something. So the one who will be editing and writing the scripts was not there, he didn’t see what is the situation. It is not in-depth coverage, but it is the best we can to do to try and cover Iraq and at the same time keep our colleagues are safe.

TBS: So you’re in the same dilemma essentially that the American media is in, locked behind gates in your compound or your hotel?

NK: That’s true. And this is a situation that is very silly because any Arab media or international media cannot claim that it is covering Iraq the way it should cover Iraq because of the existing situation. And after the tragic events of losing our colleagues, no one has the courage to send people in harm’s way. When there is an event that I feel very much needs to be covered, it is the worst hour of that day because here is an event that needs to be covered, and we are there to cover it, but I cannot pick up the phone and call somebody to say go cover it. The opposite. Whenever the guys call and say, “Let us go and cover it,” I say “No, don’t go, don’t go because I need to minimize the risk to zero, not to five persons.”

TBS: How many staff people do you have in Iraq now?

NK: Overall, technicians and staff journalists, around 25 now. The biggest loss was among correspondents, among journalists, because before the assassination (of Atwar Bahjat) we had some seven active correspondents who were covering Iraq well and the last event that they did very well was the elections of December 15 and after that we saw that we can’t go back to full load coverage. And all of us, after we lost Atwar, felt terrible. Then the funeral of Atwar was attacked by insurgents. Perhaps they were not targeted, but they fell into a trap, a situation where one of our senior colleagues had to call for everybody to calm down, so he became a target of everybody and we had to send him out for good to work outside Iraq. And Jawad Kadim was paralyzed, so he’s in Dubai and another correspondent was shot, so he’s in Mosul doing nothing. And another lady who used to always sit with Atwar in the same office became scared, and so now she’s in Dubai. So we ended up with one senior correspondent who is spending most of his time covering political events inside the Green Zone, and we have another three young correspondents who used to be fixers and with time they became reporters. Very rarely we allow them to do a live shot from the office.

TBS: So the funeral itself was attacked? I didn’t know this.

NK: Yeah, what happened was Atwar was assassinated on the day of the bombing of the shrine in Samarra, and after bombing the shrine in Samarra, there was a flurry of killings on a sectarian basis, and any Sunni would not feel himself safe, and then any Shia would not feel himself safe. People were being killed every day, hundreds, so the government in Iraq decided to have a curfew, and on the day of Atwar’s funeral there was a curfew and they had to take her for the funeral in an area where the overall power on the ground was insurgents who belong to one Sunni group. The Ministry of Interior decided to send armed guards to guard the funeral because there was a curfew. So when they arrived to the area where they had to bury her, those Sunnis thought that guards were coming under the cover of the funeral to attack them, so they started shooting, and the other guys started shooting back and there was a very tough fight where three security personnel were killed and we had to negotiate on air with both parties. … But after that, the Ministry of the Interior people thought that maybe we took them into a trap, and the Sunni people thought maybe we invited the Ministry of the Interior as a cover to attack them, so both parties thought we were involving them intentionally, which was of course not the case. That was another tough experience we went through and after that all our guys got scared to move or to work because they were targeted by both sides.

TBS: So why do you keep anyone there? Why does Al Arabiya stay in Iraq?

NK: It’s not that we have somebody who is not Iraqi and we have to pull him out. We used to have people who were not Iraqi and we pulled everybody out when the office was bombed. We have Iraqi colleagues and we have full-time employees and we ask them to never do anything if they feel it is not safe. So now it is very, very low profile existence. We cannot pull out because we need to be there, but we are looking for ways to keep doing our job safely and effectively.

TBS: Is there any situation in which you would completely stop covering Iraq? Is this a defining question for Arab journalism right now?

NK: Look, from one perspective, you feel that if you stop covering Iraq totally, you give a present to everybody who wanted the media to leave, so you need to cover Iraq. And you can cover Iraq even if you do not have a presence there just by inviting somebody for a live interview from time to time. So you don’t have to be there to cover Iraq in general, but this will not be serious coverage of Iraq. That’s why we are trying to rely on freelancers who will not be announcing that they work for Al Arabiya, or not even freelancers, but just local production houses we commission to produce certain things for us. The problem is not only a problem for Al Arabiya, I would say. The problem is a problem of Iraq and the media in general, and it is a political and an ethical question as well. What I mean by that is the fact that there are a lot Iraqi journalists being targeted. After Atwar was assassinated, five senior Iraqi journalists were killed in the same week, but because they were working Iraqi local media their cases were not that known outside Iraq. The problem here is the problem of the status of journalists in this country, and how the conflict can be covered even for the sake of the Iraqi people to let them know what’s going on in their own country at this critical period of time. So even if everybody in the world will pull out, that doesn’t mean the journalists in Iraq will be safe, because the majority of those killed in Iraq are Iraqis and Iraqis working for local media. In the beginning, the majority was non-Iraqis and non-Iraqi media institutions, but for the last year, most of those who are getting killed are Iraqis who are working for Iraqi media. Iraqi media was flourishing after the fall of Saddam’s regime and then they lost more than 40 people in two years. So the question should be whether any country in the modern world can afford not to have any media covering Iraq. From an ethical and professional point of view, Iraq should be covered, at least for Iraqi people to know what is going on. Iraqi journalists and Iraqi media institutions are under fire from different parties, so journalists are not necessarily a target because they are working for a non-Iraqi media. Because at the end of the day, sometimes if there is breaking news you can agree with local Iraqi stations that you will re-transmit their signal and you will do the show and cover what’s going on in Iraq, but now those local media are a target as well.

So my frustration goes not only to what’s going on in Iraq, but the fact that we, the international community and the international media, couldn’t build enough of a case to force the international community to deal with any attack on a journalist or media institution as a war crime. We have not managed yet to modify the international humanitarian law where it could say that any journalist should be treated as a member of an international humanitarian organization with special status and not just as a civilian. Those two things were presented in a specific suggestion, personally placed into the hand of Mr. Kofi Annan at the IT summit in Tunisia last November but again it seems that it is not suitable for the members of the Security Council to hurry to approve that. At least when you announce that any party targeting any journalist on purpose any place in the world will be treated as a war criminal, this with time could build a momentum where insurgents or military will be less violent. Now they feel that they have a free hand. For example, all the attacks on our colleagues in Iraq, of the 11 that were killed, three were killed by American troops and until now we never got any reports from anybody about this investigation, why it happened and how it happened. Five other people we lost were lost when insurgents bombed our office, and until now nobody in Iraq, the government or whoever, gave us any explanation or any results of any investigation of who might be the one who did it. I mean, there is no investigation. It’s just going on and on with no special attention to fighting the phenomenon itself.