The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press, Part One

“One Team, One Newspaper”

The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press

Part One: “THIS is a Newspaper”

Zimnaku Mohammed Saleh lost his family, fled his homeland, and adopted a new identity– all before he could walk and talk.  As a four-month-old living in Halabja, Iraq, Saleh was one of the residents fortunate to have no memory of the March 1988 bombing orchestrated by Saddam Hussein that transformed the city “into an open cemetery.” The explosions, which unleashed “a deadly cocktail of mustard gas and the nerve agents tabun, sarin, and VX,” were part of Hussein’s larger “scorched earth offensive” against Iraqi Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War.

More than 5,000 people died in the offensive, including Saleh’s father and six older siblings.  His mother also collapsed amid the chaos and was transported unconscious to a hospital in Tehran.  Unbeknownst to her, Saleh survived.  Iranian soldiers found him three days after the bombing and took him to their country.  A kind Iranian woman adopted him, giving him a new name: Ali Pour.

Saleh lived as Pour for nearly 21 years in Iran, returning to Iraq late last year after his adopted mother’s death in a car accident.  Prior to his arrival, he sought information on his family through Iran’s Chemical Organization of Halabja and Ahmadi Natqi, a photographer who captured famous images of the bombing that displaced him.  A subsequent meeting with an Iraqi government official and a DNA test revealed astonishing news: Saleh’s birth mother was aged, but still alive.  He held her in his arms in early December 2009 in Iraq, saying aloud as media watched, “I’m in a dream.”

His story echoes that of Iraq’s during the past two decades– bloodshed, loss, struggle, survival, hope, dreams. Fittingly, two months after he returned home, embraced his mother, and enrolled at university, this story was given a voice.

The AUI-S Voice, Iraq’s first independent student newspaper, featured a Q&A with Saleh in its second issue, on portions of the front and back pages. He is a student at the newspaper’s host school, The American University of Iraq– Sulaimani (AUI-S).

Zimnaku Mohammed Saleh shares his story with The AUI-S Voice.

His words join separate reports, Q&As, op-eds, photographs, editorial cartoons, and polls in a journalistic smorgasbord that its student staffers and adviser hope will sustain itself as a pioneering news publication by students, for students– and the country and university where their unfolding story is set.

More than any specific content, the Voice’s medium is its ultimate message, proving student journalism and idealism are appreciated and still en vogue in even the hardest hit spots on Earth.

In the new media age, at a time when journalism is simultaneously discombobulating and reinventing, the paper’s spirit of innovation is ironically its adherence to the oldest principles of the craft: objectivity, independence, and the search for truth.

They are tenets often left out of the Iraqi mediasphere, where well-sourced, accurate, unbiased reporting rarely appears.  Instead, facts mix with opinion in a majority of news content.  Rampant rumors are run.  And political affiliations are proudly and repeatedly touted on front pages, above the fold.  As Voice design editor Yad Faiq said, “In Iraq, for many years, any parts of media, all the newspapers and television and radio [stations] have been all related to political authorities and political people or they are related to your sex or your religion or your ethnicity.  They are not independent.”

The current Voice editorial board. Left to right, standing: Baker Alhashimi, Yad Faiq and Arez Hussen Ahmed. Left to right, kneeling: Hazha A. Abdullah and Namo Kaftan. (Photo by Heidi Diedrich)

In recent months, student editors and their impassioned adviser Jackie Spinner, a former Washington Post reporter, have aspired to start a new Voice, creating a publication with a clear demarcation between commentary and news and not even a whiff of political influence.

Within a country struggling with the basic necessities of rebuilding, security, and establishment of a solid political infrastructure, an independent student newspaper is not bread and water– but it is nourishing.

As Baker Alhashimi, an AUI-S student and the Voice’s editorial page editor said about living in Baghdad since the fighting began again in 2003, “The violence, the U.S. Army and the resistance and terrorists and explosions daily, it has been, you could say, a nightmare.  So I was looking for just an opportunity, one opportunity, to be involved and be a student like other students around the world.  While at AUI-S, I tell myself that this is the time to achieve my goals, to express, to be honest, to be loyal, to get engaged, to get my dreams.”

He has found his dreams coming true with the Voice.  “Students want a newspaper,” he said.  “This is a newspaper.  THIS is a newspaper.  It avoids politics.  This is from students to students.  All of the editors are part of the campus so you have to talk with them.  Every issue is free for everybody.  And the person who is in charge of it was part of the Washington Post, so nobody will say that it is not accurate and it is not quality journalism.”

Voice student staffers and adviser Jackie Spinner meet in the paper's newsroom.

Nine issues into its existence, the weekly paper’s quality does remain uneven.  Its first editor in chief recently resigned due to concerns about the overall editorial structure.  And Spinner, a first-time publication adviser, struggles to teach students journalism basics while acceding to their desires to also shoot video and tweet.

Yet, its larger contribution is already confirmed, echoing what is taking place in the country overall.  As a Newsweek report noted in February, “Something that looks an awful lot like democracy is beginning to take hold in Iraq.  It may not be ‘mission accomplished’– but it’s a start.”

To Be Continued||| Part Two: “I Fell in Love with Iraq”

13 Responses to “The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press, Part One”
  1. Emily Kostic says:

    This is absolutely fascinating to me. I can’t wait to read about their many successes. Is there any way to contribute/help/volunteer, etc.? Anything?

    Can’t wait to read the next part…

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