It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse: to address the Basra-based Union of Iraqi Writers and Journalists about freedom of the press. “We have no idea what independent media means,” said the event organizer, Nour al-Khal, a young Iraqi woman working with a Western NGO. “It’s never been a part of our lives.” As a freelance writer, I knew something about independence; as for the abstract concepts behind a free press--well, I figured I’d wing it. Sure, I told Nour.
The lecture was well-timed. The southern Iraqi town of Basra is currently undergoing a journalism renaissance. In 1890, the city boasted 73 newspapers; a century later there was one, owned by Ouday Hussein. Today, Basra has around 10 publications, ranging from religious broadsheets to al-Akhbaar, edited Juliani Yussef. “Real journalism is new for Iraqis,” she said. “They are struggling to understand such things as truthful reporting and contrasting points of view.”
Complicating matters, moreover, Nour wanted me to link the concept of a free press to another topic currently on Basrans’ minds: democracy. From cabbies to waiters to tribal sheiks, pro-democratic spirit runs high in this city of two million people. Across town, countless organizations have sprung up with names like “Centre for Popular Democracy” and “Centre for Collection of Democracy.” Even groups you wouldn’t normally associate with representative government claim to support the idea. “Iraq needs accountable politicians and private enterprise,” says Communist Party director Ali Mehdi. “We are guided by democratic principles,” claims Abu Hasan Assaa’di, director of the Basra office of the Dawaa, Iraq’s largest Islamic party.
The problem is, no one agrees on what democracy is. “Tribal leaders think its a new way to get money and women,” Nour scoffs--while Assaa’di openly admits Dawaa favors an “Iranian-style democracy.” As for the secular parties, “they have members, but no agendas,” says Yussef. Worse, the Iraqi people lack a sense of belonging and responsibility to their nation. “Because of the Saddam regime, Iraqis lost the idea of citizenship,” comments Lowai Howza Abbas, editor of al-Manarah, Basra’s largest newspaper. “It’s our duty as journalists to rebuild this concept.”
”Just say something--anything--about independent media and building democracy,” urged Nour, as we approached the Union’s headquarters. “You’re American, you know about these things.”
A little daunted--this seemed more like a job for William Safire--Nour and I entered a dingy meeting hall to find a disagreeable scene taking place. Standing before an audience of about 100 all-male members, an angry writer was demanding that the Union expel a well-known poet from the organization because, the man claimed, the poet had participated in Saddam’s Ba’ath party. The accuser offered no evidence, nor was the accused present to answer the allegations. It was, in short, a typical Iraqi moment, where gossip and character assassination often take the place of debate. “This isn’t exactly a model of democratic citizenship,” I muttered to a dismayed-looking Nour. Before long, however, the audience shouted the man down--and it was my turn to speak.
How to explain the role of a free press in a free society to people who have experienced neither? As Nour translated, I started with the notion of the media as an unofficial branch of American democracy--the “fourth estate” concept. From there I moved to the First Amendment, using the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers as a concrete example. “Even the President of the United States couldn’t stop the newspaper from publishing the truth,” I said. It sounded good, but I felt I was being too general, to America-centric. I decided to bring the discussion closer to home.
”Being a journalist brings responsibilities with the freedoms,” I began. “Let’s say I want to publish an article that claims, oh--that a famous writer once belonged to a fascist regime. I should allow the man to defend himself--and I better have proof or the man can take me to court and I could lose my job.” Appreciative laughter arose from the accused poet’s supporters, and I seized the moment to expound on the connection between journalistic ideals--fairness, facts and fidelity to the truth--and democratic citizenship. But almost immediately, I began losing my audience. Where was I going wrong?
To my relief, Nour asked for questions. The first query did not surprise me. “How can America’s press be free when it is owned by Zionists and Israelis?” Irritated by the constant anti-semitism you constantly encounter in Iraq, I snapped, “How does worrying about what businesses Jews own or don’t own help your lives? How does obsessing about Israel help you build a strong and prosperous democracy?” Silence. After a moment, new questions came--but there was no more talk about “Zionists.”
What effect do commercial interests have on the press? (“They can be a real problem...”) How easy it is to make a living as a freelancer? (“Don’t ask...”) Soon, politics intruded: Why did America wait so long to liberate us? (“It took 9-11 to rally public support.”) Why is the U.S. treating Saddam as a prisoner of war and not a criminal? (“In a democracy, a man is innocent until proven guilty--then you can deal with him”--an answer which occasioned a burst of sardonic laughter.) I felt my talk had regained momentum--until the inevitable occurred: a man stood and began ranting about the inaccuracies in some recent article the Times had published. “Just like back home,” I griped to Nour, as people slipped toward the exits. But it was time to go, anyway.
”That was wonderful!” Nour enthused as I shook hands and said farewell to the journalists. But I felt a distance from them. Even though I thought I’d succeeded in expressing some idea of the importance of a free press to democracy--and trusted Nour’s translation--something hadn’t clicked. Leaving the meeting room, a tall, serious reporter from Yussef’s al-Ahkbaar newspaper stopped me. In English, he thanked me for my talk, then added, “but you underestimate the problems we face here. You talk about freedom, but Iraqi journalists are still not free. If we go too deep into some stories, we will anger certain people--and they will kill us.”
The reporter’s words startled me--and I realized at once my mistake. Swaggering a bit in my role as an American journalist, I’d forgotten that there are dangerous forces throughout Iraq who do not want media investigation of their activities. Especially in Basra, where the placid British occupation barely disguises a hot-bed of violence and intrigue. Here, Islamic hit-squads murder liquor store owners and drunks they find on the street. Iranians meddle in everything, from funding religious extremists to smuggling arms and oil across the Iraqi border. Meanwhile, family feuds and hatred for ex-Ba’athists create a shadow world of perpetual revenge killings. This is underside of the democratic boom in his city. How glib my comments about “being true to truth” must have seemed, I thought! How naive my emphasis on “proof” and “fairness”--particularly to journalists who could lose their lives in pursuing those ideals! Too late, I remembered something Yussef told me: “In Iraq, freedom of the press is a freedom that must be carefully applied.”
I apologized to the young man for my oversight, and thanked him for reminding me of how fortunate I am to be an American journalist. Taking constitutional protections for granted, I had stressed to the Iraqis the necessity of press freedom to democracy, without noting the opposite: that without democracy--without the almost instinctive commitment of millions of American to principles of a free and responsible citizenry--true journalism (and many other occupations) would be impossible. Judging by the arrogance and pomposity of many in my profession, it’s a lesson we too often overlook. “You can see what we’re up against in Iraq, people don’t understand what democracy means,” Nour said as we left the meeting hall. “But with meetings like this, perhaps we are beginning to learn.” As is one American reporter, far from home.