Despite inherent dangers, Iraqi media is growing up
KIRKUK, Iraq — Ever since Muntaha Akhras was a little girl, she’s wanted to be a reporter.
The problem was, for the majority of her 36 years, free speech didn’t exist in Iraq. That void has quickly been filled by aspiring — albeit untrained, inexperienced and often openly biased — journalists like Akhras and her husband, Kaml Darwish, who often dodge death to do their jobs.
Two months ago, the pair hatched an idea to start a military newspaper, the Kirkuk Messenger, a sort of Iraqi Stars and Stripes, in that the paper derives funding from the United States government and has a military focus.
“The reason we didn’t start earlier,” Akhras said apologetically, “was that we didn’t have freedom of the press.”
The paper, which prints weekly in Arabic, Kurdish and Turkoman, is, admittedly, no New York Times — it’s not always even the Kirkuk Messenger. Depending on the week, the masthead, which is the only English part of the paper, variously reads “Massenger,” “Massneger” or “Messneger.”
Spellings aside, the paper adds another voice in a growing Iraqi media. Kirkuk governor Rahman Mustafa estimated that Kirkuk has more than 80 media outlets. Almost every paper in Iraq has an open political agenda and, often, financial backing from a local political party.
“This newspaper is special,” Akhras said in Kurdish. “It’s putting out the good stuff the coalition forces are doing for the people. In my newspaper, all of my news is positive.”
First Brigade Combat Team, 101st Aviation Division public affairs officer Maj. Gregory Bishop, who interacts with local media representatives, said that the inchoate Iraqi media movement is promising, though still lacking.
“This place is screaming for fair and balanced journalism,” said Bishop, whose unit is deployed from Fort Campbell, Ky. “Here’s what this area does not have: there’s no investigative reporting going on. There’s little to no accountability to government officials. Many people’s voices are going out, but I don’t see a lot of questioning. I don’t see a lot of digging.”
However, he also professed high regard for those who risk their lives to make an attempt to practice journalism.
“I admire greatly everyone out there who is using the pen for their cause rather than [bombs] or guns, regardless of what side they’re on,” he said. “I also admire the people who are willing to show their faces at government meetings and be out there as reporters. One day, the security situation will allow freedom of speech to be less risky.”
The freedom to spread news — biases and all — has come at a steep price for many journalists in Iraq.
Many Iraqi employees of major organizations don’t show their names or faces, for fear of reprisal. In Iraqi media, too, stories rarely are adorned with bylines, and for good reason: in 2004, 23 journalists and 16 media workers were killed in Iraq, making the country the second most dangerous in which to practice journalism, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of the killed journalists, nearly 75 percent were Iraqi nationals.
“I was threatened two times,” Akhras said. “They put a [bomb] right beside my house.”
Iraqi Media Network station manager Nasser Hassan paid an even steeper price for doing his job.
His station in Kirkuk, which receives some financial assistance from the U.S. Army, broadcasts independent local news in four languages: Assyrian, Kurdish, Turkoman and Arabic.
“We are saying the truth, we are showing the truth and we are not showing any favoritism for anyone,” he said through a translator. “Whether the news is good or bad, we put it on TV.”
Last year, while en route to Mosul for a conference, his Isuzu pickup truck came under fire from a black BMW. His driver was killed. A station engineer, who survived, took a bullet in his back.
Hassan absorbed 35 bullets from an AK-47. He spent a year in the hospital. After multiple surgeries, deep bullet wounds still pock his torso. The inner lining of his stomach cavity was torn, causing his intestines to protrude, making him look like a heavily pregnant woman. He will need major surgery to repair it.
Despite the clear warning to cease and desist media operations, he returned to the station.
“I am ready to challenge all of them,” he said. “They cannot stop me. I believe in something.”
The attack did, however, change one of his beliefs.
“I am an artist and I don’t like guns,” he said, brandishing a 9 mm pistol. “But the insurgents make me carry this.”