What Can You Believe - 05.02.2006

Brian Conley and Isam Rashid

BAGHDAD, May 2 (IPS) - There is so much more media around now; the problem is that Iraqis do not know what to believe any more.

Through the abundance, the one thing clear is that most Iraqis do not trust the media. “Most of the news about Iraq is imperfect news; the numbers for U.S. soldiers killed by the Resistance and also the Iraqis killed by road or car bombs, I see different numbers from channel to channel,” Safa Muayad, a 25 year-old student at Baghdad’s Islamic University told IPS.

“There has been palpable mistrust of the media among Iraqis,” Joel Campagna, Middle East coordinator for the Coalition to Protect Journalists(CPJ) told IPS. “You hear this from foreign and Iraqi correspondents. There is hostility towards the media when you go to report on political violence.”

This hostility has increased particularly over the past two years, Campagna said. “You hear stories from even journalists in their local communities operating under tremendous pressure.”

But locally and internationally, Iraqi journalists are inevitably essential to reporting Iraq. “The language factor and the knowledge of the place help the reporter to get material more than the Western one,” Bassam Sebti, an Iraqi who works for the Washington Post told IPS.

But even with Iraqi journalists, media movement is increasingly limited to particular neighbourhoods. News coverage appears to have an especially strong focus on Baghdad’s Green Zone, where Iraq’s isolated politicians haggle over increasingly arbitrary decisions.

There are still major foreign bureaus in Iraq, but freelancers, once as common on Baghdad’s streets as sand in your sandals, have become a rare breed.

Their capacity for movement is even more constrained. “Freelancers are fewer and farther between than ever,” Dave Enders, an American freelancer who has spent 18 months in Iraq told IPS. “My colleagues scoff at me for not using a chase car, which I can’t afford on a freelance budget.”

Enders once used to visit the troubled Sunni neighbourhood Adhamiya, but now he says it “seems to be constantly watched, so I stay out.”

Bassam Sebti tried to visit Adhamiya during the recent violence. “But the clashes were so heavy that no one dared to go in there. In addition, if insurgents discover I am a journalist working for Western media, they may kidnap me and kill me.”

The dwindling presence of the foreign press in Iraq is cause for alarm for many locals. Foreign media is still necessary in Iraq because there is no established tradition of press freedom in Iraq, Fatima al-Naddaf, member of the Women’s Will Organisation and editor of their newspaper told IPS.

Some channels support the interests of the occupation forces, others inflame risks of civil war, she said. “Some of media cause problems between Sunni and Shia. It depends on the channel, some of them are positive and work for the truth, but other channels are negative and they are part of the problem, tools for the occupation.” It is a situation where media particularly need to be objective and professional.

Everyone seems to agree that media cannot function independently under occupation. “Iraq media are not good media because we are under occupation and the occupation controls the media,” journalist Salah Hassan told IPS.

Safa Muayad says there is no free press in Iraq. “Because occupation killed many journalists.. They want Iraq to be empty of Western journalists, to destroy Iraq. In Fallujah and other cities they did many crimes freely because there were no journalists there.”

Baghdad resident Ya’rub Tarik believes that once Iraq has a free press, it will serve the people better. “Then the media, by showing the truth, will help to end occupation.”

But meanwhile journalists are facing more danger than before. In 2003 it was safe to say you work for western media, Bassem Sebti said, but now it is not because anyone working with the Western media are seen as “infidels and agents of the occupier.”

The CPJ has expressed concern about increasing risks to Iraqi and Arab journalists.

“Statistics show that nearly 80 percent of all media fatalities have been local Iraqi journalists,” Campagna said. “These are journalists working for both international news and the nascent Iraqi media following the fall of the old regime. These statistics reflect the increasing role that local journalists play in telling the story from Iraq.”

Paradoxically, while Iraqis are suspicious of the press, they seem overwhelmingly to believe that media has a vital role to play in the conflict situation. The difficulty is in finding the media outlet to pick and trust. Iraqis have a bewildering choice between different channels, websites accessed through cyber cafes that have sprouted all over, and the many local media outlets.

“The new media is very politicised,” Campagna said. “You have opposition newspapers, affiliated with political parties, and even the state broadcaster has been accused of being pro-sectarian or pro-Shia.”

Bassam Sebti says a part of Iraqi media is “owned by political parties who want to achieve a specific political aim.” But he said that while Iraqi journalists tell him the foreign press is more professional than the Iraqi media, he believes some foreign newspapers are very biased as well.

Campagna has misgivings about prospects of press freedom in Iraq’s near future. “If we look at the succession of the government from the interim government on, they have not always dealt with the media in a positive way. We’ve had a number of cases of journalists harassed, who’ve had their cameras confiscated. You hear many stories of the heavy- handed treatment of journalists by security forces. Those reports keep trickling in.”

The government has limited media freedom, Sebti says. “But I hope newspapers’ views become unbiased and neutral to take the country to the other side, to security.”


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