Iraq still most dangerous country to report from as 232 media employees killed since 2003 US led-invasion.
Press freedom flourished after the US-led invasion shattered Saddam Hussein's iron grip on the media, and news outlets abounded, yet Iraq remains the most dangerous country to report from.
Scores of newspapers and magazines and at least 17 satellite television channels sprouted up in the weeks after the 2003 invasion.
Some were independent media outlets, while others were organs of the country's new parties and politicized religious groups.
They were embraced by a population starved of modern-day news media and communications in general.
"There were no means of communications in the previous regime, no cellphones, no Internet," Zyad Al-Ejaili, who heads the Journalism Freedom Observatory, a group monitoring and defending the rights of Iraqi journalists.
Now all these are available, and journalists "are not afraid of the government like before," said Ejaili. "We are able to criticize the government directly because that criticism is protected by law."
But journalists' new found freedoms are being "undermined by threats from armed groups and corrupt authorities," according to Ejaili.
Groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as well as unidentified gunmen, have all targeted journalists.
The quality of the news, however, has improved.
Since Saddam's fall "we have a generation of journalists that are at the top of the pyramid in their profession," said Ejaili, who has worked with several foreign newspapers.
These young news gatherers "have acquired more experience in five years than journalists from the previous regime had working for more than 30 years," he said.
Some, like Baghdad University journalism professor Hashim Hassan, see the proliferation of media post-Saddam as dangerously unregulated, a chaotic media stampede.
"I thought that since we were able to make some political changes, we would be able to freely publish newspapers," said Hassan. "Instead it is a mess. There are no rules."
Reporters are being forced to face new realities, finding that news outlets they work for are being funded with money from questionable sources, and pressurised to run stories favouring one or another political group.
"I'm risking my life, because journalists like me are being accused of being linked to the shady finances of the television station I work at," said Enas Mohammed, a 30-year-old journalist.
"The government now wants to emphasise a new transparency in a bid to show that Iraq is a democracy, but it continues to hide things it does not want journalists to report on," she said.
Ahmad Al-Tamimi, 39, an Iraqi reporter with a foreign news agency, recalls how the press used to be muzzled under Saddam. Now freedom of speech is so universal that "there are no political, economic and social red lines."
Under Saddam, journalists straying from the official line were usually jailed. But today journalists "are the favourite targets of all armed groups," said Tamimi.
A reporter lurches into the firing line if he writes an article critical of a political party, Tamimi said. Many parties have their own security or militia groups and have been known to take revenge.
And "Al-Qaeda, armed Salafists and Shiite radicals often believe that a reporter working for a foreign outlet is a spy, reason enough to kill them," he said.
Tamimi himself does not tell anyone that he works for a foreign news agency for fear of kidnapping, or worse.
"Working as a journalist in Iraq is like trying to walk through a minefield," he said.
According to Journalism Freedom Observatory, 232 media employees - including 22 foreigners - have been killed since the 2003 US led-invasion.
Of these, 179 of them were killed while on the job, while the remainder were killed for sectarian reasons or in random acts of violence.
Also, at least 14 journalists are currently being held hostage by various groups, the media watchdog said.
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