Iraqi journalists make their point with short-lived strike for better pay
Stars and Stripes June 12, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Roughly 300 Iraqi journalists, who have worked for 35 days with no pay, went on strike Wednesday, getting their first taste of new-found democracy in Iraq and the negotiations process with the Department of Defense.
“I’m happy to see this happen, it’s a sign of democracy and though the show must go on, people have their rights,” said Ahmad Al-Rilkaby, who heads up the newly formed Iraqi Media Network.
“This is the first strike of the Iraqi media,” he beamed.
The strike was short-lived after Defense Department officials and a representative from DOD contractor SAIC met behind closed doors with a select few Media Network representatives to hash out details of the journalists’ demands, which included a building of their own to work out of, overtime pay and incentive pay.
One demand was met, and after promises that payment was coming Saturday, the journalists, some begrudgingly, returned to covering the news.
“They have a very legitimate grievance,” said Bob Reilly, the DOD’s senior adviser to Iraq’s former Ministry of Information, which is being reorganized by the U.S. government. “They’ve worked for no pay and we’re addressing that as quickly as possible.”
The journalists, considered civil servants for the time being, will be paid on a salary scale based on job descriptions and years of service, Reilly said. When rumor got out that all journalists would be paid 100,000 Iraqi dinars, or roughly $70 a month regardless of experience, shouting matches exploded in the halls of the Convention Center in downtown Baghdad.
Al-Rilkaby repeatedly quieted the crowd, not once raising his voice to do it.
Though suffering from a headache, and being pulled in many directions, he found the day’s events exhilarating.
It’s a dream come true, he said.
In 1969, his parents were one of the first to oppose Saddam Hussein’s climb to the top of the Baath Party and Iraq’s helm, and fled the nation instead of being killed, he said. Al-Rilkaby, born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, 33 years ago, inherited that combative spirit. For the past five years, he has broadcast from London news about his homeland and the reigning government on Radio Free Iraq, a station picked up in Iraq on short- and medium-wave radio. To listen to it in Iraq was suicide, but people did it anyway, he said.
He became a celebrity.
“When I arrived here and I would introduce myself on the streets, people knew my name,” he said. “They’d say they heard my radio broadcast and tell me about programs that I now don’t even remember. It was amazing.”
He arrived in Baghdad two days after the April 9 fall of the regime, and immediately went to work setting up a free press.
But he’s constantly looking over his shoulder. There’s a bounty on his head.
“Some members of the Baath Party are irritated with me, for obvious reasons, and they’d like to see me gone,” he said.
Some rumors say he already is.
“They say that I am dead and that my tongue was cut out,” he said.
“Actually, the rumors work to my advantage. And some say that I am old, bald, with a white mustache. But these rumors help protect me.”