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 Letter From Iraq, Starting from Scratch

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Letter From Iraq, Starting from Scratch  4.3.2011  
By Jackie Spinner









March 4, 2011

A university newspaper in Iraq's Kurdistan region includes both Kurds and Arabs on the staff and strives to bring straight-down-the-middle journalism to a country where that has long been hard to find.

Arez Hussen Ahmed never tells the whole story, preferring not to disclose the specifics of how he got into college. He reveals only, and reluctantly, that he worked at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani before he enrolled in October 2008, before he became one of the school's top academic performers, before he went on to lead a staff of 50 students at the first independent student newspaper in Iraq.     
Joshua Mitchell, the chancellor of the American university at the time, encouraged Ahmed to apply, telling him that he could be anything he wanted to be. It didn't matter where he came from or how much money he had. It didn't matter about his political party affiliation, which in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where the university is located, determines virtually everything. It only mattered that Ahmed was smart and willing to work hard.

Ahmed, now 19 and majoring in international studies, may not be ready to embrace it, but his rags-to-riches saga is the story of the AUI-S Voice, a scrappy bimonthly newspaper with an excess of spelling and grammatical errors as well as an abundance of ambition. The student newspaper is attempting to do what few professional media outlets have been able to accomplish since the fall of Saddam Hussein: to bring Arab and Kurdish journalists together in a politically and ethnically divided Iraq with no alliance to any political party or religious sect, with no allegiance to anything at all except fairness and accuracy.

"It has not been an easy experience to be a journalist, but I have made great strides in a few months," Ahmed says. "I experienced being the head of a newspaper, dealing with a large staff, balancing my studies and work, improving my writing and feeling what leaders feel when they face crises and problems."

The AUI-S Voice published its first issue on January 31, 2010, with coverage of the university's first MBA graduation, news of an environmental sciences major being developed and an editorial arguing against a Facebook ban on campus. I was the founder and first faculty adviser of the Voice. Nothing in my career as a journalist -- and yet, paradoxically, everything -- had prepared me for this experience: starting a newspaper at an upstart university in a fractured country, with limited press laws outside our campus walls and a government that a Kurdish writer described as a fledgling dictatorship rather than a fledgling democracy.

Mitchell and the provost, John Agresto, had great concerns about the student newspaper venture. The university had tried to launch a newspaper the year before, but political parties tried to control it through the students, and the administration immediately shut it down. AUI-S was trying hard to remain independent itself, and the university was vulnerable to such overtures. It accepts most of its funds from key political and business leaders in the region while trying to remain independent of their influences.

Like the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has a highly partisan press that dominates the information flow. A couple of newspapers are semi-independent, but objectivity, or even the pursuit of objectivity, is hard to find. In the first few months of publication of the Voice, Zardasht Osman, a 23-year-old student at the University of Salahaddin, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. A journalist, Osman had written scathing articles about government leaders in Kurdistan.

This was the climate in which we launched the AUI-S Voice.

To make certain that students who joined the paper understood how serious we were about staying neutral, I wrote a detailed policy manual based on the best practices of a number of college newspapers in the United States.

The Voice prohibits students in political party leadership positions from overseeing the staff; accepting financial contributions from political parties; and publishing stories or editorials about political issues, a rule that we implemented, in part, to teach the students that they could not simply crib details about events at which they were not present.

As adviser, I reviewed all material that went into the Voice, something that does not happen at most U.S. student newspapers because of the threat of liability for the institution once the adviser has seen or edited stories prior to publication. I didn't have such legal concerns, and as most of the students hadn't previously been exposed to a free press or to good standards of journalism -- or to any standards of journalism, for that matter -- I often acted as the heavy, particularly when it came to security issues.

The first editor-in-chief of the Voice initially accepted my involvement but later balked, quitting shortly after I interceded in connection with a story in which he had called a professor without telling him the reason for the conversation, used quotes from that conversation to pit the professor against the dean of students and then wrote a story under someone else's byline. The consequences of such journalism at our university could break a fragile peace between Kurdish and Arab students,
www.ekurd.netwho grew up in an Iraq under Saddam and were told that they were ethnic enemies. AUI-S, the only liberal arts university in Iraq, was the first when it opened in 2007 to encourage Kurdish and Arab students to study together, to celebrate their identity as Iraqis.

Our own editorial staff was made up of Kurds and Arabs, and included a woman as photo editor.

"I was the only female editor, which I consider as a foundation to making a difference in others' perspectives about the female role in the community," says Hazha Ahmed, 19, the newspaper's first photo editor. "We all started from zero and had no skill of how to work in a newspaper, but with the passage of time and engaging more with the work, I learned that we are capable of managing a newspaper that achieved many accomplishments."

The Voice editors began to understand the responsibility and consequences of the pen in an atmosphere that, fortunately, many U.S. college students will never experience. Their journalism got better as the weeks went by. They tackled such issues as the school's attendance policy, distribution of financial aid and lack of Internet access in the dormitories, which many students insisted should be rectified because of the distance between the dorms and the rest of the campus.

Baker Alhashimi, the Voice's first editorial page editor, was charged with guarding against undue influence from political parties and religious organizations, somewhat of a first for the Iraqi press. As the nephew of Iraq's vice president, Alhashimi had strong opinions about politics, about Iraq and about most other issues. But every week he allowed a majority opinion among the editorial board to determine what position he would take when he wrote the unsigned staff editorial.

"I learned the work should be done with friendship, an open mind, persuasive opinion and a smile on the face," Alhashimi says. "I learned to make the hard decisions for the common interest."

Because the newspaper was started in 2010, we always assumed that it would have a vibrant Web site, with multimedia journalism, podcasts and breaking news between print editions. Namo Kaftan, the paper's first Web editor, assigned video reports, created multimedia and updated the site. The Voice's early multimedia efforts, edited very simply with QuickTime Pro, were modeled after TV reports, often ran too long and didn't use sequencing or transitions well. Technical glitches and lack of experience plagued the site, which was nonetheless recognized for its achievements in July 2010 by the Associated Collegiate Press, of which the Voice is a member. It was a remarkable honor for a staff that had no experience yet set high expectations for itself.

The Voice was never about me, and I understand that now more than ever, having left AUI-S in September for a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship in Oman, where I'm teaching digital journalism and starting another newspaper at Sultan Qaboos University. I have worried from a distance about the Voice, especially as students have e-mailed seeking advice, attention, reassurance. The students have not produced any new multimedia reports or posted breaking news on the Voice Web site in five months because no one has taught the new staff how to produce the reports or stressed the importance of the Web. Arez Hussen Ahmed has shouldered much of the administration burden, including fighting to get the paper's publisher paid this year after AUI-S fell months behind in doing so.

He recently sent me a long e-mail detailing the problems with the Voice, most of them coming down to a smaller, less committed staff and the absence of a strong, experienced advocate for the students. "The good thing that helped me to make the paper survive was convincing myself that working with that mess would be an experience for me and my love for the Voice," he wrote.

In late January I returned to Iraq to help the Voice celebrate its one-year anniversary, honoring the students who stepped onto the unchartered path of independent journalism in Iraq. The university needs to take the next step now, offering classes in mass communication taught by a seasoned journalist or educator. It needs to make a real commitment and to set aside resources to sustain the birth of Iraq's student press. It needs to hire an experienced faculty adviser whose full-time job is to help develop student media at AUI-S. If it does not, AUI-S will squander a significant opportunity.

"Having a group of young students with different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds committed to having an independent campus newspaper is a cause for much celebration," says Mohammed Salih, an Iraqi media specialist at AUI-S who has a master's in journalism from the University of Missouri. "It can be a model for other student media outlets in the country. And on a deeper level, it is also a cause for hope that the young generation, through some assistance and liberal education, as offered at AUI-S, is capable of putting forward a different vision for the future of the country, one that shows despite all differences we can work together in a productive manner."

He understands well what is at stake.

Jackie Spinner ([email protected]) is a journalist based in the Middle East, where she is currently a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Oman. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.” She wrote about AFN Iraq, a network of radio stations and TV programming featuring news and entertainment produced by soldiers for soldiers, in AJR’s Fall issue.
 

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