“Our Enemy Could Be Anyone”: An Interview with Moyad Al Haidari of Radio Free Iraq
This is the second of a two-part interview Sampsonia Way conducted with journalists of Radio Free Iraq, the country’s service for Radio Free Europe. From 2004-2007, Moyad AlHaidari was the bureau chief for Radio Free Iraq’s Baghdad bureau. He was forced to flee his country after he was threatened by insurgents. He now works in Radio Free Europe’s Prague headquarters as a broadcaster. For two journalists’ perspectives on the state of the press in Iraq before, during and after the American occupation, please see the companion interview we conducted with Mr. AlHaidari’s colleague, Mr. Saleem Kareem.
Could you describe the state of the media in Iraq pre-2003? What were the primary media outlets, and who operated them? What kind of impact did Saddam Hussein have on the media environment?
For over three decades, there was no independent press in any accurate sense in Iraq. The state and the Ba’ath Party dominated the daily and the weekly issues, or they were controlled by the Ministry of Defense, or by official groups and Party-affiliated trade-union formations. That is, the state controlled the media and the Party in general. In the printed press, for example, there were four noticeable daily newspapers: The Republic which spoke for the state, The Revolution which spoke for the Party, and the Qadisiyah, issued in the name of the Ministry of Defense. Another newspaper, Brotherhood, spoke for the Kurds from the government’s standpoint.
When it comes to television, there was only two official channels managed from the same intellectual and political views of the state and the Party. Both channels spread propaganda focused on resilience against the enemies and building the country’s mobilization for war, especially during the eight years of war between Iraq and Iran, from 1980-1988.
After the Kuwait War ended in 1991, the media management tried to open new windows in the Iraqi media, efforts that lasted throughout the 1990s. Babylon, an independent newspaper, dared to publish occasional criticism of the government and some of its officials. The president’s son, Uday Saddam Hussein himself, was the editor in chief, In the same context, Uday issued a TV channel called “The Youth” and a radio channel, “Voice of Shabab FM.” both tended to be recreational for young people and relatively bold with its subjects.
In brief, this is the state of the Iraqi media on the eve of 2003. I do not deny the issuance of a few periodicals. Their editors wanted to have independent and daring views, but the publications could not survive due to the strict control over the media, which claimed the lives of a number of journalists and writers. Some others were tortured and imprisoned for publishing any negative opinion of the state, the party, or the character of the president, Saddam Hussein.
How did Iraq’s media change with the US occupation in 2003?
After the occupation of Iraq and the fall of the former regime in April 2003, the media became free of strict control. Statistics have shown that the number of newspaper and magazine issues exceeded 300 in the few months after the change! And later in 2004, about 80 radio stations and 21 TV channels were launched. It is undeniable that a lot of these launchings were possible because they received financial support from different American, Western, Arab, international and regional resources, as well as from international organizations that supported free press and freedom of expression. In addition, the publications received funding from Arabs, foreigners, Iraqi businessmen, politicians, tribal leaders, religious and sectarian groups. Besides, the U.S. administration in Baghdad provided a recognizable financial and technical support to many of these media means.
For several years, before the beginning of the military operations, the U.S. sponsored meetings and seminars to map a return for the Iraqi media after the fall of Saddam’s regime. The launch of Al Iraqiya, the Iraqi Media Network in 2003 ( established in the Conference Palace in Baghdad) was the result of prominent American support.
What was the nature of the relationship between the US troops and members of the Iraqi media reporting on the occupation? Did this relationship change over the course of the occupation?
The civil and military administration of the coalition forces in Baghdad tried to build a relationship with the media in Iraq. The administration made sure to provide Iraqi journalists with opportunities to view the military and civilian workforces’ positive achievements in areas like engineering infrastructure and carrying out service projects in some of the residential areas, and provided journalists with opportunities to access these sites. However, there many media workers and reporters who risked their lives to search for the truth and reach sensitive sites or sources that were outside of the easy routes offered to them.
Moreover, the military aliens worked on building new relationships with the Iraqi media as well as supporting it through funding certain professional programs. Besides, some U.S. military groups issued newspapers related to the U.S. military activities and enhanced the connection between members of the American military and Iraqi citizen. However, the greatest part that America played in the media was founding the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC) in 2003. The CPIC covered the U.S. and multinational forces’ activities and news through the local, Arabic, and international media. CPIC was also responsible for issuing press releases and facilitating the transportation of journalists to hot spots.
From 2004 to 2007, when I was the Bureau Chief of the Radio Free Iraq in Baghdad, I personally contributed to the CPIC, pooling representatives from the local and foreign media in Iraq in order to organize work between the Iraqi media and the CPIC from another.
The coordination provided reporters with access to a lot of military and security activities under the Americans’ protection and facilitation. Journalists could prepare reports and media stories; and they had the right to interview American soldiers, as well as Iraqi officials. But many events were out of the Iraqi journalists’ reach, and could not be accessed without endangering journalists’ safety.
What pressures did you and your colleagues face from US troops, and did this ever include threats and harassment? Were you or your colleagues banned or censored from reporting on certain stories? If so, what were those stories, and what was the reason for the censorship? Were their any stories you could not cover for political reasons?
During our work as field journalists and reporters, I can’t say that my colleagues or I were exposed to assault or harassment directly from the U.S. forces. But, like other civilians, we faced the risk of standing in the way of U.S. military vehicles as they moved through the city streets. Guards were very violent in dealing with anyone who they thought were interrupting their movement and their armored vehicles. A lot of Iraqi civilians, including journalists, died as a result of shootings; their destiny was tied to those angry soldiers.
The stories and the reports that were hard to deal with or even follow most often occurred in the hot spots where U.S forces clashed with the armed insurgencies. Some of us were threatened by the armed groups, oppositions, and terrorists who warned against publishing any news that is not consistent with their desires. Because of these violent circumstances, and the sectarian identity of these people, many journalists and media employees were killed.
Members of the US press reporting on the occupation were embedded with the troops, and their reporting was highly biased; for example, US media outlets did not show civilian casualties. How did you get your stories during the occupation, and how did Iraqi reporters circumvent military restrictions?
Well, during the years of occupation there were stories and reports available for the journalists and the Western media. There were good opportunities for the Western media to cover the events of the U.S. military directly and to access areas that were hard to reach. And although there were some journalists who tried to convey the reality of the city and the civilian losses, those topics remained without good professional coverage. However, the independent media was behind publishing some of the most important stories and scandals, such as the scandal of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, and the rape and murder of the girl in Mahmudiyah, and the subsequent murder of her family members and other civilians.
Because of the increased security risks, particularly for foreigners in Iraqi streets, most of the foreign journalists and Western media representatives resorted to using local Iraqi correspondents to report on the details of the events and conduct interviews in order to get a good and successful story! That does not deny the fact that I saw some Iraqi reporters conduct interviews while wearing protective shields and in the accompaniment of a number of armed bodyguards.
As for the Radio Free Iraq station, we were reporters keen to reach out for information and get news from trusted sources. Of course, this was not easy, but we acted in accordance with security and logistical conditions to access the location of the event and the people involved. We reported on the damage done to civilians and we also mentioned the losses from gunmen and from the U.S. or Iraqi forces.
We are in the process of covering stories from two Iraqi journalists who were arrested by US forces and subjected to torture. A 2008 report from Reporters Without Borders describes how many forces in Iraq, including the police and US-led coalition forces, targeted Iraqi journalists and forced them to flee the country. Did you ever consider leaving Iraq because the risks associated with reporting there were too great?
The dangers and the challenges that Iraqi journalists faced were harsh and violent and sometimes bloody. There are dozens of sources of dangers for Iraqi journalists. As office director for RFI Radio Free Iraq in Baghdad, we received threats through letters and emails, and through some different sources. From 2005 to 2007 we witnessed an increase in murder cases, killings,kidnappings, threats, and other dangers. Twice, booby-trapped cars bombed our station. The first incident was in 2005, and it resulted in the collapse of the building and damage to the rooms of our office. Fortunately, the explosion happened early in the morning before we got to the office. During those years we lost two colleagues: Khamail Khalaf was kidnapped by subgroup of al-Qaeda and killed, and another reporter, Nazar Abd al-Wahid al-Radhi, was killed in Al-Amara, a city in southern Iraq. Another colleague was kidnapped and tortured by anonymous people for two weeks. There were a number of reporters who were threatened. I faced a kidnapping attempt but miraculously escaped in July of 2007.
In that period, hundreds of Iraqi journalists were subjected to many dangers, including murder, abduction, threat, and eviction.
That reality led many journalists to leave the profession that had become one of the most dangerous in Iraq, and in some cases, the country. As journalists, we could not recognize our enemy. Our enemy could be anyone: a group who considers a job with a foreign media organization to be a betrayal, or a sectarian group of people who murder because of someone’s identity, or a political party affected by a report or an article, or a state official who did not like what was written about him and about his organization, or armed groups who want to kidnap us and force our families to pay a ransom and then kill us. The groups targeting us journalists believe that just because we have different opinions, they have the right to kill my colleagues and me. Life became very hard in those years and working in media was dangerous. Now, ISIS is threatening all the media employees, and the number of Iraqi journalists killed since 2003 has exceeded 300. These reporters paid their lives for working under the title of journalist in Iraq.
US troops were responsible for training Iraqi security and police forces before the occupation ended. What training did the US army provide with regard to how the police and security forces should interact with journalists and members of the media?
The outcomes of the many US and coalition programs to train Iraqi security forces did not match the effort. In terms of military professionalism, I believe that we can only depend on a small percentage of the army and police to address security issues in Iraq today.
This also applies to their training on interactions with the press and the media. I think that the issue goes further than just training. For decades, Iraqis followed policies that suppressed human rights and public freedom. And although the new Iraqi constitution guarantees free expression, freedom of the press, and the right of access to information, the security forces act with the mentality of the totalitarian system, and use repressive methods against the media and its members. Security agents have subjected many media workers to harassment and violent attacks. And even though the two ministries of defense and security emphasize the importance of collaborating with journalists, there are still security personnel who are far from understanding this principle of free expression and applying it in their daily life.
It is not out of the ordinary for an official to stop on the street to investigate why you are recording in a public place, even with your press camera or a cellphone camera. It is not even unusual for someone to take your camera or recorder when you attend a conference or a public event. We should not overlook that Iraqis are fearful of terrorist attacks, which may be carried out with cellphones or other electronic devices. And we should not overlook that bodyguards made some of these devices while they were working for officials and politicians; they attacked for trivial reasons, and gave neither notice nor warning. Journalists have faced violence from these people.
The working conditions for journalists in Iraq have not changed since the official withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of year of 2011. Although the Iraqi government tried to improve the work environment for the Iraqi journalists through revitalizing the media offices in ministries and official organizations, the problem, as I believe, lies with the fact that members of the Iraqi police, army, and security do not understand the important role of the press.
The US officially ended its occupation of Iraq in 2011. Where did the US withdrawal from Iraq leave the country’s journalists?
The change in Iraq in 2003 cannot be denied; it left a clear mark in the Iraqi media, contributed to releasing the fears of telling the truth, and allowed Iraqis to provide multiple views and release hundreds of written and audio-visual publications. In addition, it provided an audience with an opportunity for interactive communication, as well as opened Internet access, that had been very limited before the change of Saddam Hussain’s regime.
Despite these positives, many of these institutions and media outlets act today as the interface for fanatical groups, political parties, and intellectual, religious, sectarian, and nationalist groups. In addition, the neutral and balanced media only has a limited area in some institutions (including Radio Free Iraq and Radio Free Europe) that are not funded by any partisan, sectarian, or political groups. Thus, there are a lot of Iraqis who choose to listen to the media that goes along with their political and sectarian views and tendencies. And the breadth of the programs and news stories are related to financial and political scandals, criticism, and mutual accusations between political, governmental, and parliamentary figures. This is especially the case on TV and radio stations, since those media attracts more followers and more people are interested in the subject.
What threats or censorship have you faced from the post-occupation government in Iraq? From sectarian groups? How do correspondents in Iraq today navigate this difficult landscape, and continue to report?
It is undeniable that the forces controlling Iraqi journalists have declined dramatically in recent years. However, the dangers and the threats still exist if anyone crosses the red lines, especially with regard to topics related to stealing the public funds, forgery, and financials and the administrative corruption that spread throughout the country’s institutions after 2003. Political parties, sectarian and tribal groups, and the activities of armed groups dominate Iraqi society. In addition, religious and nationalist militias impose their presence by threatening anyone who crosses their lines. Of course, journalists are always vulnerable targets to these groups.
During the last nine months, ISIS has dominated vast areas in Iraq and occupied important cities in Mosul and Tikrit. This represents a dramatic change for Iraqis, and it puts the journalists and their families in these cities in a directly life threatening situation. And some journalists have been tortured and executed because they worked for broadcasting companies that did not agree with ISIS’s strict and blood ideology. Some of my colleagues were able to escape ISIS and fled from Mosul, Tikrit, and some areas of Anbar because they feared becoming ISIS’s victims. These extremists sabotaged the Mosul Museum and vandalized its statues, monuments, and relics, providing evidence of their ideology.
On the other hand, professionally, Iraqi journalists may lose their job if they discuss stories or subjects that conflict with the opinions of the concessionaire, the owner of the radio station or the TV channel. And that is what has turned many journalists and reporters, in my opinion, into executive tools used for the desire and to meet the agenda of the groups who own the media. The people who run the media want to manage reporters as mouthpieces for their opinions, and that results in a breach of the credibility and professionalism of these journalists who are submitting to strict control from their employers, rather than waving their red cards in front of their violators.
In the next 10 years what do you realistically hope will change in Iraq, particularly in terms of press freedom?
The media is an influential force in both the social and political transformations going on in Iraq and the world today. The Iraqi media represents the many changes that Iraq has witnessed during the last decade. I think that the areas of impact will expand in the upcoming years, and there will be greater transparency and balance in the Iraqi media. Iraqis will be able to follow foreign media and see how its different components are racing to publish facts and events, making room for multiple opinions, and showing transparency when providing that information. All of that will push the Iraqi media to modernize its capabilities and develop its means to achieve what their audience is waiting for them to achieve. And to achieve this, the Iraqi media must develop the potential capabilities of its media workers by providing multimedia training and helping them expand their knowledge of using modern techniques to transmit information and activate investigative journalism.
But the main obstacle to achieving this is the fanatical ideology of narrow-minded groups, whose members dominate management positions in the Iraqi state, including the media. They were working on disrupting the performance and deteriorating it sometimes, but I believe that the change movement is coming and in a positive form, and the media performance will improve especially that the Iraqi constitution relates to the freedom of press and expression and it protects the media and its elements when they perform their required job without abuse or defamation.
What is happening in Iraq right now that people should hear about, but aren’t?
I think that the Iraqis today need to break taboos and to enter prohibited areas in media and to circulate the daily public that is facing the religious, ethnic, and sectarian militancy, and they need to disclose the incitement and domination which is practiced by the advocates of religious, fanatic, sectarian, and expiatory mentalities, which are followed by terrorist and radical groups. What is needed is courage and bravery to address relevant issues and correct misconceptions about the role of religion in society, and the danger of the expiation approach that is held by some Salafis. On the contrary, we need to establish the concept of secularism and the separation of religion from the state, and to give attention to human rights, enhance the role of women in society, and to hold people accountable for the corruption that continues to plague the state today.