Annoyed by coverage, Baghdad expels many foreign journalists

Staff members for CNN, ABC, NBC are among those told to leave Iraq

October 25, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Apparently angered by recent U.S. news reports on dissent, Iraqi officials told many foreign journalists yesterday, including staff members for CNN, ABC and NBC, that they must leave the country within days, according to executives at the networks.

Officials in Baghdad told reporters that non-Iraqi journalists for those networks must leave the country, although foreigners with other outlets would be allowed to stay until their visas expire.

"They said, `Your reporting is unauthorized, and your reporting is offensive to us,'" said Eason Jordan, chief news executive for CNN.

NBC News' Ned Colt and his colleagues, a producer and camera operator, were given until tomorrow to leave Iraq.

"There was no reason given to us why they had to leave," said NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust.

The expulsions come against the backdrop of heightened tensions with the United States, which is threatening to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Iraq's actions would effectively close CNN's Baghdad bureau, which was established in August 1990 and has remained open except for a handful of brief interruptions since then.

CNN officials say they had kept the only Western correspondent permanently based in Iraq; Reuters and the Associated Press have relied upon Iraqi nationals for their reports. Jane Arraf, the CNN bureau chief, has been based in Baghdad for four years.

"To tell that person, `You're out of here,' that's beyond anything we've ever seen before," Jordan said. "Without the outside staffers, we don't have a viable bureau."

For Western news outlets, gaining access to Iraq has been no small feat. Iraqi authorities have typically forced Western reporters to apply continually for consecutive short-term visas. Periodically, the government has withheld approval to signal displeasure with specific stories.

Officials at Iraq's diplomatic mission to the United Nations could not be reached for comment yesterday.

According to Jordan, Iraq has indicated that journalists might be allowed to seek brief visas, with a limit of one visa per outlet. That would enormously complicate the task for television networks, which typically rely on crews of two to five people. For now, only reporters who are Iraqi nationals would be sanctioned to operate there.

Paul Slavin, executive producer for ABC News' World News Tonight, characterized the move as typical Iraqi gamesmanship in the government's attempts to control coverage.

"These are smart, sophisticated people," Slavin said. "I just don't think it's going to last. They understand it serves their interest to have media there, particularly broadcasters."

However, CNN's Jordan, who has traveled a dozen times to meet with Iraqi officials to try to ensure continuous coverage, said the move seems to indicate a significant tightening of restrictions.

Government officials said they were vexed by recent stories by CNN reporter Brent Sadler and others from northern Iraq, where a no-fly zone enforced by U.S. and British fighter planes has allowed Kurds and dissident Iraqis to live outside Hussein's reach.

Iraqi officials told CNN staff members in Iraq that they were enraged by widespread coverage of open protests Tuesday, in which demonstrators demanded answers about missing prisoners after many of the nation's jails were emptied.

"The Iraqi government insists - despite irrefutable evidence on videotape - that their soldiers did not fire into the air" during the protests, Jordan said.

As of late yesterday afternoon, officials at some other broadcasters, such as the British Broadcasting Corp. and CBS News, said they had not been ordered out of the country.

"That would certainly be a shift," said CBS News spokeswoman Sandra Genelius. "We've had guys there regularly."

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