The crowd was not large, but given the fact that a gathering of outspoken Iraqi journalists is an obvious target for violence here in Baghdad, and that the Muslim world is currently celebrating the Eid al-Adha religious festival, the crowd was large enough.
The scene was Baghdad's Firdos Square, best known to Americans as the place where Iraqis, in a televised event we later learned was stage-managed, pulled down a huge statue of dictator Saddam Hussein after U.S. troops occupied the city in April 2003.
There was nothing stage-managed about today's gathering--a demonstration in response to the near-fatal shooting five days ago of Imad Abadi, a well-known television anchor known for his criticisms of politicians and parties of every stripe, his crusades against corruption, and his aggressive defense of press freedom. Abadi, 36, was wounded in the head and neck, in what the nonprofit group Reporters Without Borders said was clearly a target shooting. He remains in intensive care at a Baghdad hospital.
Investigative journalism is a new phenomenon to Iraqis, and reporting is a dangerous profession. Hundreds of journalists have been killed since 2003. (And, of course, there was no independent media under Saddam's rule). But after talking with a few of Abadi's colleagues and admirers at Firdos Square, I felt their might be hope for the future--at least in the long-term, if not the near-term.
They were eloquent, even without pen and paper, or script and camera.
Abraheem al Khayat, spokesman for Iraq's union of writers, said Abadi had become so outspoken that friends had warned him to be careful. Khayat made an allusion to the silencer presumably on the intended assassin's weapon. "It is a silencer that is required to silence the voices of outspoken people," he said.
Asked whether Abadi was expected to survive, he said: "Maybe he will live, but he cannot work. Maybe he will live, but he will flee" the country.
I asked Muntasar Buzaid, who is affiliated with a private group that defends press freedom, whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of journalism in Iraq. "I have a little of both," he replied immediately. "Now, I am writing with an alias. For me, it will be a milestone when I can write what I want to write using my own name."
Mohammed Ali, a photographer who works with Abadi, spoke for journalists the world over devoted to their craft. "This is our line of work," he said. "We have only one life. I'm a journalist. What can we do? Should I become a farmer?"
Given their bravery, I felt more than a little ashamed that I could spend only 25-20 minutes at the protest because Western reporters, due to security concerns, are advised not to linger in public places too long.