Letter From Baghdad: Not That Independent  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2004

Letter From Baghdad: Not That Independent   

Building objective news outlets is a challenge in a land of newfound freedom.

By Jill Carroll
Jill Carroll is a freelance journalist in the Middle East.     


Zaid Fahmi has journalism in his blood and he likes it gritty, provocative and from the street. Fast-talking, chain-smoking and looking to take down corrupt government officials, Fahmi is the vanguard of postwar Iraqi journalism.

Standing on a street corner while soldiers search a house near his Baghdad office one morning in February, Fahmi fires in rapid succession thoughts on occupation, gun dealers and civic responsibility.

"I'm a reporter, but I don't listen to the news. I listen to the streets," says the 25-year-old while puffing on a Pine cigarette and eyeing the soldiers searching every maroon car that comes by. "I want to know the truth. It's my nature."

He's interviewed insurgents, gun dealers and Iraqi women enslaved in the sex trade, and he's tracked down factories refilling and selling food containers from the garbage as a reporter for Iraq Today, an English-language weekly. Now he wants to sniff out corruption at one of the government ministries.

"I want to catch a big one," Fahmi says. "There was corruption in the time of the old regime, but now it's a new disease."

At Iraq Today, his focus on public service and investigative work made him a minority in the country's nascent media that are, in fits and starts, trying to figure out what it means to suddenly be able to say almost whatever they want. In March, however, Iraq Today became yet another media outlet to close up shop. Last December, some 290 publications, in addition to one television station and innumerable local radio stations, were operating in Iraq, according to a count by Gareth Bayley, the Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman to the Iraqi and Arabic media. Of the 130 or so publications that still come out regularly, only about 10 are daily newspapers.

While producing a formidable cacophony, nearly all those voices are spouting the agenda of one political party or another. Fahmi's feisty weekly, established by al Ahali Media Group and British investing company Mina Corp., was one of the few exceptions. It was an independent media outlet that acted like it--striving for objectivity and fairness and acting as a watchdog on government. But written in English, it only served a tiny elite audience of business people, politicians and foreign reporters.

The lack of independent Iraqi media comes down to simple economics. Editor Hassan Fattah says the loss of Iraq Today's main funder and security concerns led him to close the paper, although there is still an online version. "The sad thing is if we'd been given a few more months we would have broken even," says Fattah, an Iraqi American who returned to the U.S. after a colleague was killed and he received a threat.

For the most part, the only organizations with enough money and desire to launch a media outlet are political parties. Most newspapers and radio stations today, for better or worse, are openly run with a political agenda.

As for Iraq-based television, there are about 20 broadcasters, including Kurdish channels, but the dominant force is Al Iraqiyah, launched by the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority. Early last summer, the authority started the Iraqi Media Network, which, in addition to the TV station, runs al Sabah newspaper and an AM and an FM radio station.

The country is also flooded with various foreign Arabic media like satellite TV channels, Lebanon's al Hayat newspaper and the U.S. government's regional Radio Sawa. Many Iraqis have satellite dishes and get their news from Qatar-based Al Jazeera and competing channel Al Arabiyah, headquartered in the United Arab Emirates. But Iraq-based media are popping up as fast as U.S. and Iraqi officials can schedule press conferences to keep them busy--such briefings increased exponentially this spring.

Even though many Iraqis think the two satellite channels are biased toward pan-Arab views and only broadcast bad news about Iraq, they still turn to them because they trust them more than the homegrown media.

A June 2003 report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a nongovernmental organization that is training Iraqi journalists, said that the burgeoning politically partisan media "could be destabilizing in a fragile post-conflict environment." It also noted that "the majority of media professionals have politicized backgrounds, either with the opposition or government media, or the Baath party itself: there are few experienced journalists, editors and managers to operate a truly independent media."

"Unfortunately not much has changed since then," says Maggy Zanger, IWPR's country director in Iraq.

But the media are trying.

"I feel I am a real journalist now," says Nada Shawkat, a reporter for 27 years who edits the women's pages at Az Zaman newspaper, an independent, Arabic-language, London-based paper with a local Iraqi edition that is considered one of the more reliable broadsheets. "After the war with Kuwait there were more restrictions. They asked us to write just what they tell us. Sometimes we felt we were lying to people. We must write the truth, to say the truth. There are a lot of rumors on the street, so we must try in one way or another to stop the rumors."

Iraqi journalists often make up the majority of reporters at press conferences, and they aren't afraid to demand answers from the U.S. spokespeople on the parochial as well as the political. They have insisted that a family whose car was crunched by a military Humvee get restitution, and they pointedly asked why the U.S. has refused to back immediate, direct elections.

At Al Iraqiyah, Najim al Khafaji, head of radio and television news for the Iraqi Media Network, says he is focusing on training journalists to report fairly and keep their opinions to themselves. "They can't separate themselves from the story," al Khafaji says. One reporter pleased a group supporting one side of a story so much that "when he finished his piece to camera they applauded... It's very difficult to turn around a supertanker."

Iraqi and foreign media observers are hoping for more such training efforts.

"Because the media was controlled for so long people tended more to believe the street, and so they trust their neighbor more than what's written" in the media, Zanger says.

Zanger's IWPR program teaches the journalistic ideals of fairness, accuracy and objectivity. The three-week training program is free and open, as space allows, to anyone with a news sense, writing ability and a desire to do it. The five classes conducted thus far have churned out 86 reporters. But Zanger says some IWPR graduates have been berated by local editors for not inserting their opinions in stories.

Mimicking much of the press in the Arab world, the Iraqi media have tendencies toward advocacy journalism, flowery rhetoric and a heavy reliance on official pronouncements. But whatever flaws the Iraqi media may have when using a Western measuring stick, journalists aren't shy about criticizing themselves and their colleagues.

"Every person who works in the media thinks they have the right to express only his ideas. He is not very ready to accept the other one's," says Shakhawan Edrees Abdullah Baban, who writes political analysis and edits the entertainment page for al Taakhi newspaper, run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

The Iraqi media are "part of the problem..the official press agency is absent, the new laws of the press are absent. The press is [writing] now only private opinion and attitudes of the parties," says Hassan al Ani, a veteran Iraqi reporter who writes for al Sabah Jadeed, a paper launched by staffers who quit the coalition's al Sabah. "We can't expect great press in a bad situation... My suspicion is that this is only one period. It won't last long."

It is indeed a particularly bad situation for most reporters. They face the same car bombs, shootings and other forms of violence as do wind-blown, dust-covered foreign correspondents, who get lauded for their bravery. But Iraqi journalists work in offices that rely largely on a communications system that is still in shambles. Computers are usually reserved for the layout and production departments. Az Zaman has one working telephone, and its reporters turn in handwritten copy, which a typist then enters into a computer. In the main newsroom at al Sabah, there is nary a computer in sight.

Local reporters even find access is in short supply. They can be big-footed by the massive foreign media organizations in town whose audiences Iraqi and American leaders are anxious to address. What would be the turf of local reporters in any other country is of interest to the world in Iraq. So when a local university professor is assassinated, al Taakhi has to compete with the New York Times.

Sadiq Abdel Rahim, a reporter for the independent Az Zaman, says Iraqi journalists weren't given as much access as foreign reporters to United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi when he met with the Governing Council. Brahimi came to Iraq in February to assess the feasibility of holding spring elections in Iraq.

"They are giving opportunities only for foreign journalists," says Rahim, who, in a spotless suit and tie, had arrived early as usual to claim his front-and- center seat at yet another background briefing by U.S. officials. Foreign journalists tend to shuffle into the briefings at the last minute, filling up the back rows in their rumpled khaki ensembles.

Local journalists also live under Coalition Provisional Authority Order 14, which was passed last June. Under a decree that would give most First Amendment rights lawyers fits, the CPA has banned printing or broadcasting anything that incites violence. That includes news that provokes civil disorder, rioting, property damage, harm to soldiers or CPA employees, as well as anything that advocates the return of Baathists or that purports to speak for Baathists.

Media offices are subject to search and can be shut down at any time at the direction of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. overseer in Iraq. Anyone in violation of the order also faces a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

A little more than a month after adopting the order, the occupation authority used it to raid the offices of al Mustiqila newspaper, an independent publication. Iraqi police arrested the office manager and shut down the paper because it "has chosen to threaten the basic human rights of Iraqi citizens, especially the right to life and the right to live without fear or threat," according to a CPA press release. The CPA said it objected to a story headlined "Death to all spies and those who cooperate with the U.S.; killing them is religious duty" that ran just as the members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council were announced. In late March, the CPA's closure of the weekly Shiite paper Al-Hawza sparked a demonstration by supporters of radical Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and fueled the violence that soon engulfed parts of the country.

Most Iraqi journalists say such a law is necessary in a country whose diverse ethnic groups are just beginning to express their identities and long-repressed rivalries.

The order does seem to have created a chilling effect. The IWPR program tries to sell stories its graduates have written to other local media, and it has run into roadblocks. "If there is anything critical about the Americans, they won't publish it, and if there is any discussion of religious issues, they won't publish it," says IWPR's Zanger.

For its part, the Governing Council press office has made rudeness to a public official a punishable offense. At a televised February press conference, a reporter for Radio Sawa questioned one Governing Council member about several statements he had made that turned out to contain inaccuracies. The reporter was summarily banned from future Governing Council briefings. Why? Because "she used abusive language to a member of the Governing Council and that is not acceptable anywhere in the world," says council spokesman Hamid Kifaei, noting with incredulity, "that was live on television."

The Iraqi reporters there at the time walked out of the meeting in protest. "Even we didn't expect this kind of behavior" from the Governing Council, says Ibrahim al Saraji, a reporter for al Itisal Jadeed, a tabloid about the economy.

Then in April a U.S. Marines siege in Fallujah and uprisings led by Muqtada al-Sadr turned Iraqi sentiment violently against Americans and foreigners in general. A spate of kidnappings and threats against foreigners, including journalists, made it dangerous to travel outside Baghdad or walk the streets of the capital.

That left many foreign media organizations with a choice: less coverage from the streets, or having Iraqi staffers do reporting in places Westerners couldn't go.

When two Iraqi staffers for the Los Angeles Times reported from Fallujah recently, the paper gave them full byline credit and the title of "special correspondent."

"We rely on them for translation and contacts and driving and now we really rely on them for security," says Patrick J. McDonnell, the Times' Baghdad co-bureau chief. "It would be very, very difficult--impossible, actually--to work as a journalist here without our Iraqi staff... After three decades of secret police, oppression and twisted propaganda about the West, there's a lot of inherent distrust of outsiders out on the streets and in the villages."

But National Public Radio producer Quinn O'Toole, who arrived in Baghdad April 4, just as the upheaval was beginning, says the organization won't send its Iraqi staff to places deemed too dangerous for its regular correspondents. That has meant NPR didn't have anyone in Fallujah and correspondents haven't been able to travel outside Baghdad as often as in the past.

The situation makes the mission of driven Iraqi journalists like Zaid Fahmi that much more difficult. Fahmi is now working as a fixer for the British Broadcasting Corp. He wants to go into television but is also looking for publications to pay him to write the stories he is passionate about. In the short term he is facing the problems of most budding freelancers.

He's already financing his own trips around the country to report, hoping to find a place for his stories later. "I need someone who will pay my bills," he says emphatically. "Just to give me more experience."


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