Since returning to the United States after spending nearly two years in Iraq working to develop journalism among its citizens, I have often lamented that the American people remain woefully ignorant of the complex reality of Iraqi lives, despite the millions of dollars U.S. news organizations have spent covering the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. And despite the plethora of “looking back” books published recently by navel-gazing political insiders or journalists, the people of Iraq still remain largely ignored, apparently regarded as an uninteresting sideshow to the main event that is supposedly being staged in their name.
One of a few notable exceptions is “Ahmad’s War, Ahmad’s Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq,” by former National Public Radio correspondent Michael Goldfarb, who offers the reader an intimate journey into Iraqi lives through the story of an Iraqi Kurdish man, Ahmad, and his family. As seen through the eyes and experiences of this progressive intellectual and journalist Ahmad Shawkat, the reader is taken on an in-depth exploration of the political minefield of pre-and postinvasion Iraq.
A financially desperate Shawkat was hired as a translator by the equally desperate, newly arrived radio reporter, Goldfarb, in Kurdistan during the early days of the invasion. By the time Baghdad was surrounded by U.S. military hardware a few weeks later, Goldfarb had come to depend on Shawkat for an insider’s view of Iraqi society, and the two men had developed a friendship based on mutual respect and an oddly common intellectual history. Shawkat’s willingness to share with Goldfarb his life’s story left the reporter with “a solemn sense of obligation” to his translator to “tell his story to as many people as possible.” And that he does.
Through the detailed telling of Shawkat’s life journey—from impassioned young university professor to politically “safe” businessman, to desperate internal exile and then to postregime newspaper publisher—the reader journeys through the political trajectory of Iraq in the latter half of the 20th century. As Baathist street thugs rose to take the reins of state power, worldly, freethinking intellectuals like Shawkat were imprisoned, tortured, exiled and, finally, if they survived at all, left with little but poverty and despair. Readers also discover through Shawkat’s experiences with the political reconstruction efforts after the invasion that ignorant American overlords in parts of Iraq allowed the oppressors of the old regime to come to power again, while former political prisoners were forced to the sidelines.
Shortly after starting a newspaper in Mosul, Shawkat was killed by unknown assassins while he was on his roof talking on a Thuraya satellite phone, a tool that became emblematic of both local and foreign journalism in war-ravaged Iraq.
The New Iraqi Press
Journalism in Baathist Iraq—if it can even be called that—took an abrupt turnabout with the fall of the regime. The tightly controlled state media juggernaut came to a grinding halt with the fall of the government on April 9, 2003. In one day, Iraq went from having one of the most rigidly controlled news media in the world to one of the most free. But the emerging issue would be what the content of these new entities would be.
By May, the Iraqi Ministry of Information’s some 7,000 employees had been fired and the ministry abolished. An array of new media players rushed to fill the void. By late summer, there were probably more than 200 new Iraqi news outlets, in addition to those that had been operating relatively freely in Iraqi Kurdistan, which had been outside of government control since 1992.
The news media immediately became a focal point in the political jousting that, not surprisingly, characterizes postinvasion Iraq. Most Iraqi media outlets were started by political parties or by individuals with clear political ambitions. Parties and personalities long in exile or deep underground began newspapers and radio stations to enhance recruitment and to push their political line. A few profit-driven, highly sensationalist tabloid-style newspapers also quickly hit the streets, and some gained wide popularity.
But profit- or politically driven, nearly all papers trade in street rumor, conspiracy theories, and endless editorial comment, often based not on fact but bias, misconceptions and wild innuendo. “Serving the public” with accurate, complete and fair information was, and remains for most, an unknown concept.
Training Iraqi Journalists
This was the media landscape I stepped into in August 2003 when I was hired to start a journalism training program in Baghdad by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a London (and now also U.S.) based nongovernmental organization that specializes in training journalists in postconflict and post-authoritarian societies. As a university journalism lecturer in Cairo, Egypt I had been researching the post-1991 development of the Iraqi Kurdish media for several years. Like Goldfarb, during the U.S. invasion I was based in Kurdistan, though I came much earlier than he did and stayed much longer.
As happened with Goldfarb, I had quickly developed a deep sense of obligation to the people who, amid mind-numbing poverty and despair, had taken me in hand and shared with unexpected grace, humor and dignity their historical and social knowledge as well as their hopes and dreams. Like Goldfarb, I know that getting to know the Iraqi people is an enlightening and rewarding effort. If given the opportunity, the American people might discover that they have much more in common with the Iraqi people than they imagine.
From my first trip to Iraq in 2001, I had wanted to work with local journalists. I saw so much potential in a smart, dedicated people who had no role models for quality press. And perhaps my long disillusionment with U.S.-style news prompted me to want to play “journalism god” and help to shape an emerging, free news media. Perhaps I naively thought Iraq represented a “clean slate” from which there was a possibility to develop a form of journalism that could live up to all of those free-press ideals that some of us stubbornly cling to, ideals that we know are rarely achievable in the West’s corporate media environment.
But Iraq is anything but a clean slate. The Baathist legacy of deep corruption, violence and mindless obedience is tenacious and permeates all sectors of society in an endless assortment of debilitating ways. I called it “the Baathist hangover.” Ahmad Shawkat called it the cancer of “dictatorism” and recognized it even in close friends he thought shared his determination to fight fascism in all its forms, even if it riled Muslim feathers.
Pervasive “dictatorism” led me to quickly realize that those reporters who had worked under the Baath would take a lot more “reform” than I could provide in three-week training seminars. At about the same time I turned to working with mostly young and totally inexperienced people and training them to report and write from the ground up, Shawkat was running afoul of Mosul’s Islamists.
Shawkat had returned from exile in Kurdistan to mostly Arab Mosul and started a democracy institute and a newspaper with money he had wrangled from the Americans. The paper ran under the banner Bilattijah (Without Direction), which means that no one dictates the paper’s point of view and conveys the sense that Iraqi’s were divided on what direction they wanted the country to take.
While Shawkat was not associated with any political party—he had long become disillusioned with all parties—he did have a political direction in mind. “We are the first to fight for the building of a new Iraq and a civil society and a transparent democracy in a time of freedom,” Shawkat wrote in an early edition. “This is our direction in the midst of a period ‘without direction.’”
His editorials called for all Iraqis to stand shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy who would thwart the democratic direction. Even in the summer of 2003, it was clear to him that a deadly union had formed between former Baathists and Islamic fascists, and he lost no time railing against them in his public forum. “O courageous Mujahideen ….” he wrote. “May God forgive you …. You know better than I do that Islam is a religion of peace ….”
What Shawkat failed to realize was that his overt, and reckless, criticism of the Islamists and their Baathist bedfellows presented his own manifestation of “dictatorism.”
For most Iraqis, the end of the regime meant “freedom.” But given the Baathist legacy, it was a freedom devoid of the confines of social contract. It meant, for some, freedom to drive at night with lights off on the wrong side of a divided highway. For others, to regularly steal U.N. food from the warehouse where they work. For others, it meant writing what is on one’s mind without regard for fact or, in Shawkat’s case, without regard for who will be offended.
He ignored the mounting death threats and warnings from friends that he needed to be more politic so people might listen instead of reacting in anger. “He weighed everything he was risking against a lifetime of enforced silence,” Goldfarb writes, “and decided he would not hold back.”
His enemies did not hold back, either. And their willingness to use extreme forms of violence was no match for Shawkat’s pen. And “dictatorism” meant a thorough police investigation never happened and the killers never held accountable.
When Goldfarb returned to Iraq in March 2004 to investigate Shawkat’s assassination, the Iraq he found left him sputtering in anger. The Bush administration’s “arrogant political careerists” running the country “seemed hell-bent on making sure the Iraq Ahmad envisioned would never exist,” he writes. In his mind, he tells Shawkat of his anger. “My government betrayed you and the thousands like you.”
Many of us who lived daily with that betrayal share his rage. It may well turn out that the confluence of Baathist and Islamic fascists will prove less deadly to the Iraqi people than the confluence of the Baath and Bush legacies.
Goldfarb found a ray of hope in Shawkat’s young daughter, Roaa, who followed her father into journalism and was working as a stringer for Western news outlets. I also find hope in the young journalists I trained in Baghdad and Kurdistan. Some of them are working with local press and radio stations. Some, like Roaa, work with Western news outlets such as Reuters, the Chicago Tribune, the Financial Times, and The (London) Independent. Many continue to write for IWPR’s Iraq Crisis Report, probably the best reporting on the daily lives of Iraqis in print today.
Several of these trainees said to me, “You are the only one who helped us.” One said, “You gave us a life. We were dead before.” Sad statements given the billions of dollars U.S. taxpayers have spent. All I did was give them a chance, an opportunity to reconstruct their lives. That was all Shawkat and his compatriots asked of “liberation.”
Maggy Zanger is associate professor of practice in journalism at the University of Arizona. She was Iraq director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting [IWPR] from August 2003 to December 2004 and is the author of “Of Journalists and Dogs: Tales from the Northern Behind,” a chapter in “Global Media Go to War,” published by Marquette Books in 2004, that details activities of the international media based in Iraqi Kurdistan during the invasion. The IWPR’s Iraq Crisis Report can be read at www.iwpr.net.