French video-reporter Stephan Villeneuve and Iraqi Kurdish fixer and reporter Bakhthiar Haddad were killed by an explosive device in Mosul’s old town the day after the final assault was launched to complete the recapture of the city, still partially held by Islamic State fighters.
A handful of freelance reporters permanently based in Erbil, 85 km to the east, and several dozen Iraqi and foreign journalists continue to cover this decisive battle, adapting to an increasingly dangerous terrain.
Yesterday, one day after the explosion that killed Villeneuve and Haddad and also injured Swiss journalist Véronique Robert and her French colleague Samuel Forey, the authorities restricted access to the old town, which is located in the western part of the city and is the main focus of the current fighting.
Similar measures were taken in October 2016, in the wake of the deaths of two Iraqi journalists a few days after the launch of the military offensive that enabled the Iraqi government forces and its allies to retake control of the eastern part of the city.
Since the start of the land offensive to retake the western part, a total of 226 media crews, 84 of them foreign, have registered with the Joint Operations Command (JOC), according to its spokesman, Brig, Gen. Yahia Rasoul.
It is hard to know the exact number of journalists currently on the ground as they do not necessarily have to register with any central authority. However, so far as French journalists go, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had been able to establish that there are currently six in the Mosul area or in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, which is the rear base of the battle for Mosul. Four of them are visiting and two are permanently based.
They include Oriane Verdier, 25, an Erbil-based freelancer who works for RFI, Radio France, Libération and RTS. She based herself there in 2014 “not to be war reporter but rather to explain the region’s issues,” she said. She received training in security from France Médias Monde, which helps her “to think twice, to stay in control and always weigh whether the risk is worth the information that could be obtained.”
Verdier has had to take this kind of decision with increasing frequency as a result of the marked deterioration in the security conditions in the region in the past three years.
“The reporting conditions in Iraq are getting more and more difficult and complicated,” said Pierre Barbancey, a staffer at L’Humanité who has been covering the country for the past 17 years.
In Mosul, which he visited in December 2016, “it is impossible to feel really safe because even when you think you are out of a combat zone, a car packed with explosives could appear out of nowhere or a mortar shell could land on you at any time.”
Barbancey, who has covered wars in many other parts of the world, points out: “In Mosul, as elsewhere, we are not only targets to be killed but also kidnapped. This risk exists everywhere, but in Mosul’s maze of alleys, the danger is even greater.”
Mosul’s old town, where Islamic State’s remaining forces have dug in, is a labyrinth for both the government forces and reporters. They have to advance on foot along narrow curved streets that are heavily-mined. At the same time, they are exposed to mortar shelling and Islamic State snipers posted inside houses or on rooftops.
“Islamic State is past master at the art of targeting journalists (...) with bombs dropped from drones and with snipers at the front lines,” said Ziad Al-Ajili, the head of the Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), shortly after Islamic State seized control of Mosul in June 2014.
Three years later, the figures compiled by Al-Ajili are sad. “Nine journalists have been killed in the battle for Mosul (...) and nearly 46 Iraqi and foreign journalists have been wounded,” he said. This high toll is due not due solely to the ferocity of the fighting but also, in his view, to the lack of protective equipment for journalists, their lack of experience in covering this kind of war, and the lack of prior training.
Laurence Geai, a freelance photographer who has been covering the battle for Mosul for Le Monde and who is there right now, is conscious of all these dangers. “You have to watch out for the mortars, the snipers and the mines,” she said. Covering the fighting in the old town in the coming weeks will be even tougher for journalists, “because that’s where the heart of Islamic State is located,” she added.
This is going to be “a terrible battle,” said Frédéric Lafargue, a freelance photographer who has worked often in Iraq since the First Gulf War in 1991 and who covered the start of the battle for Mosul for Paris Match.
“Neither side are novices, the level of commitment of both the Iraqi forces and Islamic State is very high and the nature of the terrain [the old town’s maze of alleys] is unfavourable, so covering this kind of situation necessarily entails an enormous risk,” he said.
Lafargue added: “The presence of civilians renders the equation even more difficult and then there’s the fact the Islamic State fighters may feel that this is their Fort Alamo and they there to stay and cause as much damage as possible. All this makes you think twice about going there.”
Islamic State has been holding ten Iraqi journalists and media workers captured in Mosul for nearly two years. The jihadi group seized all of the media outlets in Mosul in 2014, turning the city into a news and information black hole until the Iraqi army and its allies launched their offensive last October.
RSF and the JFO published a joint report in October 2015 about the media freedom situation in Mosul since Islamic State seized control of the city. Iraq is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
In partnership with UNESCO, RSF publishes a Safety Guide for Journalists that is available in French, English, Spanish and Arabic. Written for reporters going to dangerous regions, it offers practical advice designed to help mitigate the risks.