Not Saussure

November 12, 2006

Reporters on covering Iraq

Filed under: Iraq, press — notsaussure @ 2:53 pm

Columbia Journalism Review has produced Into the Abyss: Reporting Iraq 2003-2006 — An Oral History. Well worth reading, despite the somewhat portentious title.

They explain that

In August 2004, CJR asked Farnaz Fassihi of The Wall Street Journal to keep a diary of her time in Iraq. Before we could print her piece, we were scooped, inadvertently, by Fassihi herself. She often sent e-mails to friends, and her September 2004 letter reflected her mood at the time: grim. “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest,” she began, and then later, “The genie of terrorism, chaos, and mayhem has been unleashed . . . as a result of American mistakes.” Somebody in the chain put the letter on the Internet, and it went around the world. Among fellow journalists the reaction was swift: some worried that an objective reporter had revealed so much; others felt she made it seem as if no reporting could be accomplished in Iraq; still others thought the e-mail was dead on. Meanwhile, something about the personal nature of the note communicated the reality, more forcefully than yards of standard prose, of what Iraqis call “the situation.” Here at CJR we wanted more, and for our forty-fifth anniversary issue we interviewed Fassihi and forty-six other journalists who have covered the war in Iraq.

The interviews give insights into the difficulties of covering a situation in which you can hardly get out of the hotel, in a country that ‘wasn’t fact-checkable’; one reporter tells how

I had a story on insurgents killed because the magazine couldn’t fact-check it [the story eventually appeared in Harper’s, which had not commissioned it]. American magazines have been beaten up very badly by various scandals, and they just couldn’t take a risk. If you said this is a group of insurgents that I’m with, they’re not a bunch of former Baathists, they’re fighting for kind of tribal, nationalistic reasons — that was the opposite of what was being written in the press in the fall of 2003. The majority of the articles were that they were a group of Baathists, they’re dead-enders, they’re criminals, they’re disgruntled Sunnis who want to take over the country again. The insurgency was over, the insurgency would soon be over. And I was saying, “No, actually, this is an expression of a minority that’s scared and doesn’t feel that it’s going to participate in the future of the country. It’s very tribal; it has to do with the cultural context.” And it’s very hard to prove that.

Meanwhile, of course, information was very much a weapon in the campaign, used to manipulate public opinion both in Iraq, for tactical reasons, and abroad, for political ones.

More significant, I think, are the insights the interviews provide on life for the Iraqis under the occupation of American troops who don’t understand the language or culture and where everyone’s scared stiff. Nir Rosen, a freelance writer, describes

Having to deal with the barbed wire everywhere, the tanks and Humvees blocking traffic in your roads, pointing their guns at you, firing into the air, shouting at you. It was constant humiliation and constant fear, because they control your life. They have these huge guns and you can’t even communicate with them adequately. And that summer [2003], it was just unbearably hot and American soldiers were dressed in all that gear. Obviously they were not in a good mood. Iraqis had no electricity. They were in a bad mood. It was always very tense, they were always shouting at Iraqis and shouting at me sometimes. I was walking down the street toward a checkpoint once, and I heard one American soldier say to the other, “That’s the biggest fucking Iraqi I ever saw.” And the other soldier said, “I don’t care how big he is, if he don’t stop moving I’m gonna shoot him.” And there were one or two other times I heard soldiers talking about shooting me, and whether it was in jest I don’t know, but at least I understood and could shout, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” Most Iraqis couldn’t, and that’s a very scary thing.

And Ali Fadhil, a translator and reporter, gives an insight into how things can easily go very badly wrong:

[In Najaf, August 2004], me and Ivan Watson [of NPR] found ourselves at the top of a tower. We found two American soldiers, very, very young soldiers — they were snipers — at the top room of the tower, and they invited us to eat the MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. And we were very happy because we didn’t eat anything, like only eggs and potatoes all of these days, because there is no food in the city. And we ate with them and started chatting with them, and myself personally, I had like a friendship with them, and one of them called me to come and hold the sniper machine and look through the sniper zoom and look to the [Imam Ali] Shrine, because I wanted to look at it. And we were like joking about the situation until the moment when suddenly we heard the voice coming from the shrine for the prayers. At that time the two soldiers were back in position. They were furious, and I said, “What’s wrong?” They said, “The sound — it means something,” and I said, “What?” They said, “It does mean that they’re calling their soldiers to come kill us, isn’t that right?” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s prayer calls.” It seems like these soldiers didn’t know that these are prayer calls, because it’s long, long prayer calls — it’s prayers they do for the martyrs. And they thought that this was something like a call to start fighting.

Via Boing Boing

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