Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 5, “All Saddam, All the Time”

Early last year, I began writing about The AUIS Voice, the first independent student newspaper in post-Saddam Iraq.  Started by a scrappy band of Iraqi students and an impassioned ex-Washington Post reporter, the Voice’s spirit of innovation is ironically its adherence to the oldest principles of the craft: objectivity, editorial freedom, and the search for truth (rarities among Iraqi media).  In mid-May, via a university grant, I traveled to the northern Kurdish region of Iraq to interview and observe the student staffers in action– along with gaining a glimpse of the university and region where their unfolding story is set.  This series is centered on my trip.

Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure

A quick shot taken during a mid-May hike outside Halabja, Iraq. Read Part 4 to find out why I'm wearing dress pants for a hike. :)

Part 5: “All Saddam, All the Time”

When we last left Arez Hussen Ahmed, the Voice editor-in-chief, he was determining how to cover the largest student protest in the brief history of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).  At lunchtime on a mid-May weekday, roughly 100 Kurdish students had taken to the steps of AUIS’s main administrative building to oppose a rumor that officials planned to drop Sulaimani from the university’s name.

To the student protesters, the school’s hometown, Sulaimani (affectionately dubbed Suli), is not just a city.  It is a symbol of larger Kurdistan, a homeland often referred to as “the other Iraq” for its disparate politics, culture, history, and dominant language.  In this vein, many Kurdish students saw Suli’s potential removal from the school name as a blow to the region’s ethnic identity.

A shot of the mid-May AUIS student gathering, in protest of administrators' rumored intent to remove Sulaimani from the university's name. The name change plan was subsequently dropped, with AUIS officials saying it had all been a misunderstanding.

In coordinating coverage, Ahmed had the added difficulty of balancing his love of journalism with his own Kurdish nationalism.  These dual, dueling passions left him most reliant on journalism’s bottom line: objectivity.

It is not a buzzword within Iraqi media, according to Judit Neurink, director of the Independent Media Centre in Kurdistan.  Independence, accuracy, and solid sourcing also tend to be scant.  Instead, the press is openly political.  “Media here are all tied to parties,” said Neurink.  “Most media are only writing what the party expects them to write.”

The Voice’s first design editor Yad Faiq concurred, noting, “In Iraq, for many years, any parts of media, all the newspapers and television and radio have all been 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 Voice is the exception.  It is the first editorially independent student newspaper in Iraq.  It boasts a clear demarcation between commentary and news and not even a whiff of political influence.

To ensure no actual or perceived bias, Kurds and Arabs serve together on the editorial board and general staff, a rarity within the Iraqi press.  The Voice also typically avoids stories about political, religious or ethnic issues, viewing that coverage scope as a slippery slope toward party-controlled media.

Yet, a protest on the school’s main steps was impossible to ignore.  Ahmed knew a Kurdish student with strong nationalist feelings such as himself would not be perceived as an objective reporter.

Arez Hussen Ahmed, 20, an international studies major at AUIS, is editor-in-chief of The Voice.

So he assigned the story to Hussein Hussein, an Arab student from Baghdad who fell in love with journalism for its “investigations, how you find the news, find the truth, meet people, and talk to them.”

Hussein described the media atmosphere growing up as “all Saddam, all the time.”  He recalled once watching an important soccer match on television between Iraq and Jordan, only to have it suddenly interrupted by a broadcast of yet another Saddam speech.  By the time the station cut back to the game, the Iraq side had scored.  “We didn’t get to see the goal,” he said.

Hussein and Ahmed agreed the goal with the protest piece was to accomplish something Saddam-era media often failed– to present a story people most wanted to see, fairly, factually, from all angles.  Following those edicts, it premiered in print early the next week as the top story on the front page.

It was the only story in local print, online or broadcast media to report from all perspectives– those of the Kurdish student protesters; the AUIS administrators (who said no plans were in place to remove the city from the name); the angry Arab students who felt attacked by the rampant Kurdish nationalism; and other students who could not care less.  “We are the paper who will get the full story,” Ahmed said after delivering the issue on campus.  “This is the reason we need to stick around.”

To Be Continued ||| Part 6“No More Violence at AUIS!”

Read about the Voice’s founding in my exclusive six-part CMM series, originally posted in April-May 2010.

Part One || Part Two || Part Three || Part Four || Part Five || Part Six

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