Western journalists were among the targets of suicide bombers in Baghdad this week. The Washington Post and several other news organizations lost their bureaus in the blasts and their employees suffered injuries. The Post's Baghdad Bureau Chief Ernesto Londono describes what happened and talks about how long news organizations can continue their commitment to covering Iraq.
BOB GARFIELD: Staying on a news story after a disaster has always been a challenge for news organizations. The news, by definition, must be new. Increasing stability is not that big of a story. That’s one reason in recent months Iraq has receded from the headlines, but this week it came exploding back after three suicide bombers struck Baghdad hotels favored by westerners, including western media. Thirty-seven people died and more than a hundred were injured in blasts at the Sheraton, Babylon and Hamra hotels. We spoke to The Washington Post’s Baghdad Bureau Chief Ernesto Londono, whose staff had an extremely close call on Monday. Many were in the Hamra Hotel when the car bomb exploded. Londono himself was just leaving an interview when he heard the first explosion.
ERNESTO LONDONO: I was actually interviewing the government spokesman about these controversial hand-held devices that the Iraqis use to try to detect explosives. They've come under scrutiny because many people, including the U.S. military, thinks they don't work. And I as I was leaving that interview, we heard a pretty powerful explosion. I was with a colleague, and we scurried inside the building again and within a couple of minutes heard a second very powerful blast and then a third. Within minutes we were alerted that one of those had struck at our compound. My colleague and I returned to the bureau and found that our house was essentially completely destroyed. All the windows were blown out, furniture had been strewn around and a handful of my Iraqi colleagues had been wounded. Fortunately, their injuries were not life threatening, but our ability to remain in that compound is now in question.
BOB GARFIELD: We read a piece by the McClatchy foreign editor, talking about the experience his bureau had. They’d pulled out of their digs in the Hamra Hotel because they perceived the security situation there to be deteriorating, particularly the removal of bomb blast barriers, for reasons that were unclear. I guess they just suspected that something was up. Did you guys suspect that something was up?
ERNESTO LONDONO: In fact, a number of us got together maybe three, four months ago and discussed how we could beef up perimeter security, and we were actually in the process of doing so. We brought on board ten additional guards to stand outside those checkpoints, because in the wake of the bombings we saw last fall we realized that these buildings were landmarks, that they were targets, and that we were pretty much low-hanging fruit. So this was actually a fairly active debate, and my colleagues and I spent a great amount of our time over the last few months trying to mitigate that threat.
BOB GARFIELD: Over here, we've had the general sense that security issues were beginning to ease over there. Can, can you tell us the lay of the land at the moment?
ERNESTO LONDONO: This has never been an easy story to cover. One of the major difficulties is how quickly the threats evolve. The threats have changed here pretty much on a monthly basis, and the evolution has been particularly difficult to adapt to under the financial constraints that many news organizations are under these days. At the beginning of the war, there was a sense among the journalists that money was a secondary concern, and with so many news organizations struggling financially, as we weigh the pros and cons of operating here, as we weigh what kind of risks are worth taking in the pursuit of journalism, it has become a lot trickier because our budgets are a lot smaller.
BOB GARFIELD: Give us an example of how the financial situation at The Post, for example, has a bearing on how you report.
ERNESTO LONDONO: It essentially boils down to how many people we can have on staff and how many resources we devote to security. At The Post, managers have, have always been extraordinarily supportive and have always prioritized security, but there’s a sense among all of us that it is no longer as easy to convince our bosses, convince the newspaper publishers that you can keep very large bureaus here. You certainly have still a handful of, of newspapers and wire agencies and a dwindling number of broadcast journalists that are still committed to the story and that still devote a significant amount of money to covering it. But I think as you look at the year ahead, after we cross the benchmark of the election in March, I wouldn't be surprised if many news organizations shrink their footprint here dramatically.
BOB GARFIELD: So what about traveling out of Baghdad? Has it become safer for you to venture into the provinces than it had been a couple of years ago?
ERNESTO LONDONO: Toward the end of 2007, early 2008, the roads became a lot safer, the security forces became more effective and more of the country was within reach. You know, we had the ability of going, for example, to Fallujah or Ramadi on a day trip to do reporting. We had the ability to drive down to Basra. We had the ability to drive up to the Kurdish area in Northern Iraq. I think in the wake of what happened on Monday, I think all of us are taking a step back and trying to assess what the threat level is and what sorts of threats we need to worry about, we need to be concerned about.
BOB GARFIELD: Who decides when the pullout of U.S. troops has reached a sufficient stage for Iraq not to be a story anymore? Will you stick around to figure out whether Baghdad will become Saigon, whether the government will function, the security situation will stay relatively stable? Or will you be gone before this story plays out?
ERNESTO LONDONO: I don't know. I think that’s a question that, that many of us ask ourselves here and that many of us have raised with our editors. I think there will be a western press corps here through the pullout of American troops, but I think those of us here on the ground will lobby for and try to argue that a sustained presence here is the responsible thing to do, is the right to do and is necessary.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Ernesto. Many thanks for spending the time with us.
ERNESTO LONDONO: My pleasure, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Ernesto Londono is the Baghdad Bureau Chief for The Washington Post.
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