Thursday, May 28, 2009

Guess who's back...?

No, not Eminem or even Slim Shady but me...and bloody glad to be so having just returned from Baghdad.

I was honoured to be part of making history, being part of the first international conference to take place in the city since the invasion and occupation began in 2003. With the rather grand title of the Baghdad Journalism Summit 2009: Iraqi Media Working for Democracy the conference brought together around 200 members of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate (IJS) with colleagues from around 30 countries to discuss issues from public service values in media to building professional solidarity, to safety issues to tackling impunity, promoting ethical journalism and media development. Organised jointly by the IJS and the International Federation of Journalists the conference was broadcast live on Iraqi TV, made all the Iraqi newspapers as well as a number of international media.

Being so high profile and a potential propaganda coup for the government or one faction or another security was beyond tight. We were met at the airport by armoured vehicles mounted with machine guns, by trucks full of armed security - police, army and private security - who led us in convoy from the airport along what Iraqi journalists told us was the most dangerous highway in the world because of the number of roadside bombings, to the Al Rasheed hotel inside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

The route was lined with high, thick concrete walls topped with barbed wire with numerous check points staffed by machine gun toting soldiers. Watchtowers with machine gunners looked over the road. Vans with explosive detection equipment swept the road. It's fair to say at this point the whole delegation looked a little pale.

The hotel was a ghost town - after all there aren't many tourists - and it had taken us nearly 2 hours to get through security. Our hotel was surrounded by high concrete walls, had an armed sentry post at the end of the drive and another at the main gates to the hotel where every time we came in and out we had to be searched by the Peruvian security force guarding the hotel. Then there was another search at the front door of the hotel. Finally we got to our rooms. Faded grandeur - in ten years it will be retro chic.

Down for some dinner and the first chance to meet Moaid Al Lami, the President of the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate. His predecessor was murdered last year - one of more than 250 Iraqi journalists killed - and he himself was targeted in a bomb attack. He expresses to us how important a show of solidarity it is for us to come to Baghdad and speak up for journalists and journalism in Iraq and support the union.

A rather sleepless night - you can hear the helicopters flying over the hotel - before the conference opens the following morning. It's the pomp and circumstance bit. Drummers, singers and entertainers warm us up for the arrival of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki whilst CIA agents and Iraqi security sweep the building. Despite the ceremony Maliki says nothing of any value and doesn't take questions but is forced to sit and listen as IFJ General Secretary Aidan White and Moaid Alami make the case for sweeping away the media laws established by Paul Bremer as the imperial power in Iraq in 2003 and for greater action on bringing to justice the killers of journalists.

On to the conference proper and speakers from Spain, the US, Lebanon join two Iraqi colleagues to talk about building independent media. It clearly is a huge issue here as journalists feel under pressure either from government or one faction or another. And that's not just pressure through strong opinions but is commercial and physical pressure too. In the afternoon we discuss a new model for public service broadcasting in Iraq.

It's Saturday night in downtown Baghdad..and we get ready to go out. Armoured vehicles - check. Lots of soldiers - check. More guns than you knew existed - check. We're ready to roll. We head through town to Abu Nawaas Street on the banks of the Tigris, famous for its restaurants. One of the bridges over the river has been shut so we are forced to take a different route and get stuck in a traffic jam. The one thing we've been told is not to stop in traffic. There's no choice and the tension levels rise again - after all it's hard to blend in in an armoured convoy. Soldiers run about shouting and pointing guns at drivers doing nothing wrong and clear a path for us to drive through. After another hair-raising journey we reach the restaurant and sit o0n the roof with the Tigris one side and the Palestine Hotel the other - the scene of the killing of Jose Couso, the Spanish journalist by US troops in 2003. As with 19 other cases where US troops killed a journalist no-one has been brought to justice for the killing - a point we make in TV interviews during the meal. Every move we make is filmed. When we eat, drink, chat there is always a camera (or several) in our faces.

The meal is late and we miss the curfew to get back in to the Green Zone and so we spend nearly two hours negotiating our way back in to the hotel through the various security checks.

Sunday morning it's my turn, speaking as part of a panel on the Ethical Journalism: The Challenges facing Journalism. I get to talk a bit about the Suzanne Breen case and protection of sources, about union action to take up ethical issues, about codes of practice, our ethics council's work, about a framework of law, about our conscience clause campaign. It goes down well and a few people ask for copies of my speech. If only I'd written it down....

Immediately after my panel I'm asked to take part in another one to report on the IFJ's work on impunity before the families of media victims joint together in a strong call for justice. The wife of Shihab Al Tamimi, the murdered former head of the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate makes an emotional plea for her husband's killing to be properly investigated. It is a poignant reminder of just how dangerous it remains to be a journalist and trade unionist in Iraq. The lie that life is normal again in Baghdad just doesn't wash. In the three days before we got there around 100 people were killed in suicide bombings. The night we arrived an American contractor was blindfolded, stabbed several times and had his throat slit inside the Green Zone, not far from our hotel.

It's lunchtime and a small group of us are piling back in to the minibuses and joining the by now familiar convoy to head to a meeting with the Minister of the Interior. As we arrive he sits resplendent on a gold chair (some might call it a throne) and we are ushered in to sit around. Pleasantries over I am asked to say a few words on behalf of the delegation and ask the Minister to update us where they are with their investigations in to the killing of journalists and progress on ensuring journalists can work free from threat and independently. He consults with officials and answers a different question. Then he suggests lunch. Over lunch we have another go - he promised a report to us a year ago on the status of the investigations - can we have the report? He again promises it at an future date. He will email it to us. Just as Eduardo Marquez from FELCOLPER, the Colombian journalists' union, begins asking him a question the lights go down and a blaring propaganda film starts about how good has triumphed over evil and all are happy in Baghdad. Then the message is reinforced by a play all in Arabic but which is apparently very funny judging by the audience reaction.

Despite attempts to ask more questions we are ushered back to conference. On the way out we do a series of TV interviews setting out the key demands of the Iraqi journalists for better conditions, greater freedom of expression, greater transparency and freedom of information and so on. When we see the interviews on TV they have been dubbed so I've no idea how it came across - but we tried.

Back at the conference we endorse a lengthy declaration setting out an action plan for the next two years to help the IJS build its strength and to enable it to play a greater role in building an independent media, solidarity amongst journalists and tackle the huge problems of corruption brought about by lack of job security, poor wages and the pressure applied to journalists.

It's our last night in Baghdad - and as if things hadn't been surreal enough - we are convoyed to a park - where we sit in armchairs and are entertained by Iraqi folk musicians and an Iraqi cosmonaut (yes, really!). Once again TV crews broadcast our reaction - and our dinner - live. There's one slightly scary moment when the generators fail and all the lights go out and we realise we're sat out in the open, having been shown live on TV doing so, in the pitch dark. The security are obviously a bit nervous too and move in closer to protect us. But the fear is short-lived, the lights are back and the show can go on.

We understand from our Iraqi hosts that the government wanted the event broadcast because it would help show life in Baghdad was returning to normal. You could sit in a park, enjoy a meal and some music...what could be more idyllic. I'm sure the TV didn't show the fact that the park had been cleared of 'ordinary' people and that it was surrounded by tanks, armoured vehicles and heavily armed soldiers. Still, why let reality intrude.

Monday morning it's back along the airport road and through rigorous airport security, including having to empty your bag out on the tarmac just before going up the steps of the plane and soon we're on our way back to Amman. There's a real sense of relief.

So what to make of it. We all knew before going it was going to be tough, that a conference was not going to solve all the problems faced by Iraqi journalists, that the government and others would try to use the visit for propaganda purposes but at the same time we believed we owed solidarity to our sisters and brothers in Iraq - not just by passing motions in conferences in London but by coming to Baghdad to understand a little better the daily reality for them, the dangers and pressures they face and discuss in detail how we can learn from each other's experiences and build genuine trade union solidarity.

This was a start - and I'm proud I was able to be part of it - there's a long way to go- but if the courage and commitment we saw from so many ordinary Iraqi journalists is anything to go by they will struggle for their freedom and independence from the occupiers, the government and all those factions who seek to control the message.

Normally after you've been away you dread coming back to work. Today it felt good. I'm sure it won't last....

1 comment:

Joe said...

Jeremy, from a fellow journalist in Jerusalem, I found your blog exciting, packed with action, and totally fascinating. Great work!