photo: Eddy van Wessel


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Silencing journalists by fear

Being a journalist in Iraq is not simple. And that does not only go for the local journalists, who have many reasons to complain and many of whom resort to self censorship to be able to work. But it only is when  foreign journalists also get into problems, that the world realizes how difficult the situation really is.

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picture DC4MF
I am quoting news of this week:

A French journalist who had been held in jail for three weeks in Iraq for allegedly taking photographs
of security installations without permission, was released on bail on Thursday.

Nadir Dendoune was arrested while taking photographs for La Monde Diplomatique compiling a series of reports to mark ten years since the US invasion of Iraq. He claimed to have been photographing a water treatment plant, but was accused of capturing the intelligence services headquarters.

An Iraqi official told AFP: “We released him but still have many doubts about him.” 

Photographers and cameramen have an impossible job in Iraq. Outside Kurdistan more than inside, but always the question is when you pass a checkpoint and say you are a journalist, where the cameras are. Once I passed a checkpoint in Kurdistan after I had been taking pictures of the beautiful nature, with my camera still in my hands, and  the guard told me to step out and show him the pictures I had taken. I refused, and got the help of his boss, but in Bagdad this can end a lot less pleasantly, as the adventure of Dendoune shows.

For everything a cameraman needs a permit, however simple. I remember a colleague who was shooting a picture one morning of the early sun on a mosque in Sulaymaniya, and got stopped by security police. Why? Well, why did he have to make a picture of the mosque? Was he going to give it to someone for an attack on the mosque, perhaps..?

My colleague and friend, Silver Camera winner 2012 Eddy van Wessel can tell you about problems with police in Iraq too. He tries to show the world what is happening in Iraq, and I have seen a few heated moments at Baghdad checkpoints trying to stop him from doing just that.

Sometimes it seems that Saddam's heritage still lingers, with his fear of spies and opposition. Of course, many of the soldiers and policemen have not been taught what the rights of the different groups in the society are, and many also just want to show their power by flexing their muscles. I have trained security police in Iraqi Kurdistan on working with media, and remember one discussion with a Kirkuki policeman who was adamant that any journalist might be a spy for the Iranians and for that reason could never be allowed to work freely.

The fate of Nadir Dendoune has sent a wave of fear through the community of journalists and stringers in Iraq. Because of him, my plans to go to Baghdad for stories had to be shelved, as my stringer was afraid I - or Eddy, who would go too, would also get into trouble too. Now that Dendoune is released, we might reconsider again.

We are waiting for his story though. The news is that 'the journalist is in good health'. What does that sentence mean, after three weeks in an Iraqi prison? Although they are said to be better than ten years ago, it cannot be a very nice place to be.

And how about this? Dendoune's fixer Haqi Mohammed and a man who allowed Dendoune to stay at his home in Baghdad were also freed, with all three having paid bail of 10 million Iraqi dinars (about $8,330) each, according to a security official.

picture AKnews
Who will bail me and my fixer out, if we are arrested? So, let's face it: the Iraqi security police did a good job. They scared the shit out of us journalists. We no longer know what to expect. And that means the authorities have found the most effective way of censorship. Just make sure they do not come.

Then nobody reports on the demonstrations of the Iraqi Sunni's that have been going on for weeks now. Then Iraqi's will get the impression that all is quiet, there is no opposition against the government. Then people will keep quiet. Simple thoughts, but I am sure many in power in Iraq think that way.

So guys, let's show them they are wrong! Let's do our jobs, and let's get out there!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Do not hide your eyes

‘Can you ask her not to look at me?’ I still remember the request, made by a Kurdish student who was shy because a female teacher was looking at him. ‘I cannot stand those blue eyes!’

I knew from travelling in the region that women should not look straight at men, or at least not look them in the eye, for they would be giving off an unintended message. But when you teach, you have to look at your students to see the impact of your words and consider repeating information.

In my world, eye contact is important. It has a connection with trust. When people do not look you in the eye, they probably have something to hide. So when you would be so lucky as to meet the Dutch Queen, you do meet her eye. Yet in Kurdistan, when you respect someone, you show that by looking down. Even after 5 years in this country, I find that difficult, and when meeting the eminences of Kurdistan, I do want to make eye contact. I can only hope they understand that in my case it does show respect.

When I travel to more strict areas of Iraq, I hide my eyes behind sunglasses, and try to look away when men look at me, not to attract attention. Yet it is difficult to apply the rules of behavior in the different worlds – as the differences are not always known. The student who did not like my eyes, probably did not know that for a Western woman, it is normal to look, and abnormal not to.

Since then, I was told about the background of the blue eye-charms against the evil eye – or more exact, against jealous eyes. That it originates from blue eyes that people were not used to, and they thought might affect them in a negative way. Yet strange eyes are not only seen negatively. ‘Strange eyes force people’, is a saying from my home country, the Netherlands, that is very true here in Iraq too. Information that comes from an outsider has more impact, as people will accept it easier than when the same information comes from someone they know.

Hence the title of the column, which I will write weekly for the Kurdish newspaper Kurdistani Nwe: Strange eyes. To share my views, my smiles, my frustrations in Kurdistan - the views of an outsider. I will publish it here in English a couple of days after publication.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A day in the life of a journalist in Kurdistan

Iraq is a country with many stories, a Valhalla for journalists. The stories are there to grab, often right in front of you. But not always. And if stories need organizing, the trouble starts.

I went to make a story about Syrian Kurds who come to Iraqi Kurdistan to smuggle petrol and food back to their families, towns and villages. Because of the war, goods have become rare and expensive in Syria. Men walk for hours through the mountains and load themselves with jerrycans of petrol and bags of flour, meat and cigarettes on the way back.

A beautiful story that was pictured by my Kurdish photographer colleague Aram Karim for Metrography. I decided to go and make the story in words.

That was easier said than done. The smuggle route ends in Shilikiya, a village at the three-country-point in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet. The area is outside the Kurdistan Region, but is under the control of the Kurds. You have to cross the bridge over the river Khabour, or Habor, which has a Kurdish checkpoint that acts as the border crossing to Syria.

I decided not to drive myself, but ask the young taxi driver Serdar to take me. He's very interested in journalism, and fun to be with. As he is also taking colleagues to the Syrian refugee camp of Domiz, near Duhok, he has some good contacts. I found some myself as well, through my Kurdish network. We phoned the police chief in the area who made sure his men knew about our trip, and then the office of the governor of Duhok, as that is the administration for the area we were going to.

I was told to pass by the governor's office in Duhok for a letter to show to the checkpoints who we are and what we are doing. So the morning started at six, leaving from Erbil to Duhok reaching there just before nine. At half past nine we left the office with the letter - which is a record in Kurdish administration, thanks to the help of an old friend (thanks!!). Without him, I am sure, it would have taken much longer. Then we set out for Silikiya, in the ever-increasing heavy rain.

Roads in Kurdistan can be good, if repaired recently, or very bad when used by heavy traffic and been patched over too often. The road towards the Syrian border, which is partly the old road to the Iraqi/Turkish border point Zakho, is of the last category. Serdar had to keep his eyes on the road not to drive into one of the many potholes in the road or bump into one of the cars or lorries trying to avoid them.

The old friend in Duhok, who is from the area we were heading for, made us a map that we followed as good as possible, as signposts are rare in this region. We arrived at the bridge over the Khabour, presented our letter at the checkpoint and were very happy to have made the detour. Without it we would not have been able to pass. Now we were treated with all the regards of honored guests.

At the checkpoint they asked us to make a copy of the letter and deposit that to them on the way back, which we did. It seemed they did not have a copy machine, or did not want to copy our details down by hand as is usually done. Surprisingly enough we found a copy shop in the next village.

We found the village and the smugglers (my story about them is to be published in Trouw and De Standaard). They were all soaking wet from the rain and the streams they had to cross, and with mud all over them. Some had donkeys for their stuff but most were carrying it by themselves. I ventured out of the car to accompany them a little, but soon found the weather far too bad for participating journalism. It seems I had chosen the worst day in the year to do this.

While talking to them in the village, a well-dressed gentleman appeared and asked what I was doing there. He was member of the assaish, the Kurdish security police, dressed in civilian clothes. I was a bit taken aback, as press freedom is settled in the Iraqi constitution and accepted by the Kurdish parliament and leadership. I handed him our precious letter from the governor's office, after which he changed his tune.

What surprised me is that he did not act in any way against the smugglers, even though they were in Kurdistan illegally, as they has crossed the border without any documentation. The smugglers were accepted, but a journalist making a story was not. But what bothered me most is that his behavior reminded me of the security police of the former Iraqi regime.

For that reason I was happy to find another member of assaish who wanted to fill us in on some details. He had finished his work - he registered the refugees arriving from Syria and the weather kept them away today - and had just started his car. He was driving a taxi. Serdar and I were invited to join him in the car. It was strange to interview someone of the security police from the backseat of a taxi. We were interrupted by phone calls and people outside who needed his advice, but did get some essential information.

We got back some 13 hours after we started off. The car was muddy, inside and out, my clothes were too and I had to put my shoes under the tap to clean off the mud. But I was happy and content. A day well spent, back with a good story and we survived the terrible roads. Just another day in the life of a journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan.