The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press, Part 3

“One Team, One Newspaper”

The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press

Part Three: “What! Another Newspaper?”

Dana Jaff knew it would happen.  He had seen it happen before.  He even unwittingly predicted it would happen on his own newspaper’s front page: The beginning Times would also be the end of Times.

Individual students and student groups had attempted to launch a number of campus newspapers at AUI-S since the university opened in 2007.  And they were always fast folds– never publishing second issues.

According to Jaff and other members of the original Voice editorial board, these one-issue wonders had become part of school lore and fed the perception of a scattered, superficial student media scene.  Jaff entered the scene with The AUIS Times last December, determined to begin publishing regularly and offer a “free space for every student and faculty member to express what they feel . . . and begin our challenge for democracy, freedom, and justice.”

His own search for freedom of expression started at home in Iraq with spirited inter-family political, intellectual, and social debates.  “I was in primary school when I began to read newspapers,” Jaff said.  “I was in the 5th class of primary school when I was reading poems in public.  And in secondary school, I began to publish my articles in some of the famous newspapers in my region.”

He also quickly learned to speak Arabic, English, Persian, and Turkish to complement his native Kurdish, enabling him to work as a translator for numerous news media.  However, as a teenager, his poems and other personal writings began to convey a sense of isolation.  He had a longing to put his language skills and reportorial passion to better use.  “The education system we have doesn’t allow students to be themselves,” Jaff said.  “So I had many debates, even quarrels, through my educational life.  Journalism helped me to be a critical thinker from the beginning.  I wouldn’t accept an opinion without arguments.  This wasn’t a very easy thing to do at times.”

Once at university, Jaff wanted a change with his Times.  He started the alternative newspaper with three classmates, a $100 donation, and full awareness that many would view its premiere as a simultaneous finale.

As he wrote in a note to readers on the front page, “What!  Another newspaper? There is no doubt that it is gonna [sic] fail.  It won’t have more than the (0) [first] issue.  The previous expression is the first impression of any student whose horoscope is AUI-S when he sees our newspaper put on the reception desk.  Why?  Because they have never seen a student newspaper publish­ing a second issue. . . . [E]very attempt to publish a stu­dent-running newspaper has failed in the past.”

Every past attempt had also embraced the preferences of the country’s journalism outlets, student or professional: political pandering, freewheeling bias, and frequent gossip in lieu of genuine news.

The Times similarly followed this tract.  Near the top and at the center of the first Times front page (a portion of it captured in the screenshot below), the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also the founder of AUI-S, is smiling. He is congratulated in bold, outsized font above his photo, along with the words, “Dr. Barham Saleh [sic] is the kind of politician AUI-S, Kurdistan and Iraq need.”

The brief piece beneath it quotes students praising Salih’s economic rigor, generous nature, good listening skills, and personal modesty– to a fault.  The editorial-headline-photo combo represents what Voice editor Jackie Spinner calls a “big wet kiss,” or an overt, often excessive fawning over political and religious leaders in prominently-featured Iraqi news “reports.”

The remainder of the content in Jaff’s paper appeared in tabloid style, with gossip, exclamation points, and anonymous sources in abundance.  As a pair of campus news items noted, “An anonymous source told us that one of the AUI-S cafeteria’s cooks gets his food from the fast-food shop near to the mosque. . . . According to the latest news from the Mid-Term exams, cooperative work, a euphe­mism for cheating, is being conducted on a wide scale by the Academic students.  There are many new methods which have not been discovered by the dear professors yet!”

Amid the kisses and rumorous reports, Spinner saw promise in the Times, and its founder.  She sought him out to be the first editor in chief for the official campus newspaper she envisioned– one that did not yet have a staff, newsroom or name.  “Dana was an easy choice,” Spinner said.  “He was so excited and so eager to start a newspaper on his own.  I understood what contributions he would make as part of this operation.  I just had to convince him that I could teach him the journalism.”

Spinner and the school chancellor sat with Jaff in early January to make their pitch and gauge his interest.  She described him as “initially very reluctant to join this quote-unquote official effort.”  As the chat progressed, the pair slowly sold him on the positives of starting a newspaper following American journalistic traditions– objective reporting and presentation; independence from political factions; facts instead of gossip; and direction from Spinner and support from the school without content interference.  If published, the newspaper would be the first editorially-independent, politically-impartial, news-driven student paper in the country’s history.

Jaff hesitantly accepted.  “The first thing I learned from Miss Jackie is Iraqi journalism is far from being professional,” he said.  “I could do better.  We could do better together, all the students. . . . From [the] start, I did say, ‘The Voice can be a small contribution to Iraq and to the world.’”

With his own contribution to its start, Jaff enabled the AUI-S student media lore to remain intact– for a tiny bit longer.  The Times never published a second issue.  And the Voice had its first editor in chief.

Dana Jaff looks over the first issue of The AUI-S Voice.

To Be Continued||| Part Four: “Editorial? What Do You Mean Editorial?”

Just In Case||| Part One ||| Part Two

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