Dear Friends

Reporting in Baghdad is horrendously more difficult than you can imagine. So cut the journalists working here some slack.

Dear Friends–
I’ve not been blogging much lately, and I’d like to explain why.
First and foremost, I’ve doing commercial freelance for a major newsweekly and have been approached by other publications to freelance for them. This is exhaustive work.
Why? Well, first of all, the logistics of moving around are terrible here. Let’s tackle it from the inside out, as if I were an Iraqi.
Baghdad is a city of 5 million (or so) people, and it sprawls on the banks of the Tigris. There has been an influx of hundreds of thousands of cars since the fall of Baghdad last year, and everyone of them seems to be one the streets at once. Traffic lights, when they work, are blissfully ignored. There are a few very brave souls who make up the traffic division of the Baghdad police force, and they stand out and try to direct traffic as best they can, but it’s a Herculean task. Plus, they can cover only so many intersections. I think I’ve seen them at three intersections since I’ve been here — and I’ve been driving around a lot.
Secondly, the U.S. forces have the habit of closing off streets, seemingly at random. At any given time, several major thoroughfares will be blocked off by concertina wire, humvees, Bradley fighting vehicles and occasionally M1-A1 tanks. There is no explanation given, but it’s usually because of a suspicious vehicle or a roadside attack.
Combined, these two factors lead to a colossal amount of time spent sitting in traffic as you move around. This is hard going for Iraqis. It’s worse for me, as an American, as it’s pretty damn risky to move around Baghdad. No one has taken potshots at me yet, but I keep a low profile and S. is a very good driver. But it means my movements are limited and I’m dependent on S. to take me around. It is definitely not a good idea for me to go off walking by myself chatting up your average Iraqi.
This safety issue should not be underestimated. It’s a real factor and it is very, very difficult and draining to deal with.
As such, by the time I’m back to a computer line that works, inshallah, I’m exhausted from just daily life. This is what Iraqis probably feel like all the time. There’s really no good way to explain how this stressful environment affects you. The phones don’t work well — Iraqna, the new cell phone company is an Egyptian firm and they haven’t yet gotten up to capacity — and the relationship of sources to the press is very different than it was during the war.
As I implied, the goodwill among Baghdadis has evaporated. They’re very nice and welcoming, but only up to a point. I’ve been unwilling to push people who have so much to worry about just to survive too far.
Secondly, as far as official Iraqi sources go — the bureaucrats and ministers, for example — have learned from their American patrons well. There is a press officer in every ministry now, and there is a deliberate protocol for working with them.

  1. There are no phone interviews allowed. It’s just not done, and the phones don’t work anyway. This means all interviews are done in person, with the concurrent problems of moving around the city. Put a few interviews close together in a day and you’ve got a recipe for frustration.
  2. Reporters must get a permission slip from the appropriate press officers before we can interview anyone. And multiple layers of bureaucracy compound this hassle. At the oil ministry, for example, first you have to convince the press officer’s secretary to ask the press officer for permission to ask for an interview. If he says OK, she will then call the subject you want to interview and ask him if he can talk to you. Your subject will never see you today. If you’re on a deadline of a day, then you’re out of luck. And don’t think about pestering the press officer in the oil ministry. His secretary will make only one request per day on your behalf. If you want to interview three people, she will ask for permission for the first one on Saturday, the start of the work week, the next one on Sunday and so on.
  3. Finally, you have the interview, which — like many interviews is — is more or less good.

This is not to engender sympathy for me specifically but to increase your understanding of how journalists have to work here. You can’t just call up a source — unless you know them well. And even then, there’s a good chance the phone won’t work. The threat of capture or worse is very real. Two Japanese journalists were killed yesterday trying to do their job. An NBC crew was captured in Fallujah earlier this week but — mercifully — released unharmed. There are a lot of kidnappings and detention going on that aren’t reported for very valid reasons: If journalists are captured, there needs to be some time to allow the negotiations to work, and also, no one knows what story the journalists have told their captors. If they say they are Canadian, and it’s all over the news that they’re Americans, it will go very badly for them.
So to the people who think they’re being fed a stream of lies from the press corps here, I’m going to disagree. To those who think the reporters aren’t aggressive enough in sticking it to The Man and reporting on the abuses, you have no idea what it’s like trying to get accurate and verifiable information here. Often it just doesn’t exist, and you can’t just take Iraqis’ words for it. They’re very passionate and have very strong opinions about the current life in Iraq and frankly, they’ll exaggerate, repeat and amplify gossip until it’s conventional wisdom, even though it has only a fleeting resemblance to the truth.
To those who think that reporters aren’t supporting the war effort enough and “refuse” to report good news, well, here’s a shocker: There isn’t much good news to report. The security situation is growing worse. The power is still bad (three hours on, three hours off, or so.) Major U.S. contractors are bypassing Iraqi companies, leading to growing resentment. What kinda sorta good news there is is being pretty well covered. The (maybe) truce between Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and U.S. forces in the south, the coming together, however shakily, of a caretaker government. I refuse to reprint the press releases that pour out of the CPA on any given day. Most of the “good news” they release has to do with passing out free soccer balls to kids. Is this what should be reported when U.S. troops and Iraqis are dying every day?
Like the woman on the day of the car bomb who wailed that “The Americans did it!” I got some flack for just quoting her, but I included her not because I believed her (I don’t.) but because her reaction is part of the story. To those who think the press doesn’t pay enough attention to the Iraqis: This woman is a prime, albeit exaggerated, example. I would honestly be shocked if the U.S. had done this and I don’t think it did. You have to examine Iraqis’ statements critically. This one was easy, others are not.
To those who criticized me for even quoting her, if you don’t like that Iraqis feel this way and express themselves by blaming the Americans, well, too damn bad. The occupying forces — including the Americans — are responsible for security under the United Nations resolution. So far, they haven’t done a very good job of providing it.
My point in all of this is that the reporters I’ve met so far are smart, talented and very good at what they do. Many of them most emphatically do not stay in the Green Zone. Most live and run around Baghdad in constant fear for their lives. All of us are trying to a do a job and stay safe at the same time, which is the same thing Iraqis are trying to do every day. And like Iraqis, the journalists I’ve met are frustrated with the security situation.
Now, this long diatribe doesn’t completely explain my lack of postings, and if anyone still cares, it’s because of my freelance work. This work is necessary because, as I explained previously, I plan to stay here a long time. I’ve effectively moved to Baghdad. Reader donations don’t really cover the approximately $4000/month burn rate for driver, housing and fixer. I like working freelance as well, and I want to advance my career. This may strike some of you as “selling out” but I’ve been clear about my intentions since I started raising funds again.
So here’s the deal: I’m going to continue to blog, but not as often, and more like essays on the state of Iraqi life. That seems to be what most people want to hear about anyway. When I proposed this third trip I was open that the donations would go to establishing a beachhead in Baghdad until the freelance work kicks in. I’m still working on that, but it is starting to kick in quickly. I will attempt to work out deals that allow me to blog effectively, but I am limited in what I can do. I hope you will understand.

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