Live from the International Freedom of Expression Exchange

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Okay, I'm shallow. But meeting Bashar Al-Mandalawy, the first thing I notice is how cool he looks. He'd be so at home on Queen West. But actually, he lives in Baghdad -- born and bred -- and there's little comfort in that.

Being here in Beirut with an international phalanx of human rights leaders is just a short reprieve. He works full-tilt for the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory and the way he quietly says he's seen a lot, speaks volumes.

Right now, the worries are piling up.

Just last February -- the 23rd at 2 a.m. to be exact -- his office was broken into. Thankfully no one was there at the time. The computers were all taken and most of the paper archives also. "They now have all our information," he says with a worried look. He feels certain the order came directly from the prime minister.

The docs are critical because one of their main activities involves fighting with and in the courts. A big case right now involves defending the executive director of his group, also the head of the city's media college, who uncovered ministry corruption related to the building of a sports stadium in Baghdad. The minister responded by fining the professor $1 billion dinar.

For now, they have moved to what he describes as a "safe house." They don't bring any visitors to the office, so he feels that no one in the area knows who they are -- which is how they like it. And through the setbacks the organization is stronger now, he says. They observe violations and they are able offer help to journalists all over the country who need lawyers for advice and protection.

But Al-Mandalawy thinks the biggest threat these days is Iran who, through the Shia Al-Mahdi Army and the leader Mahdi Al-Sadr, have a lot of power in Parliament, controlling six or seven Ministries. And the Sadrists pull on the streets. Just last week, a demo in Baghdad's Sadr City area gathered the city's Shia in uncountable numbers. Press reports vary from 70,000 to 700,000. Al-Mandawaly says they marched in the millions.

It is all too much. Sadly and happily, Mandawaly plans to leave Iraq within the next year. It is too dangerous and now that he has a son (just three months old), he feels he must find a better life for his family. Not the best for Baghdad but...

Alice Klein is attending the international press freedom meet as part of the delegation of the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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