Two able-bodied: Letter from Baghdad 4 - My Family Travels

After a few months in Baghdad, I have just returned from a trip north to Kurdistan, to meet Benton, a fellow journalism training colleague running a different non-governmental program up there (and here, which is why he came down with me), as well as my two employees up there, and grantees we are supporting. 

I flew up with Iraqi air, which my staff told me I should think of more as a bus than a plane… it departs when it likes and seating is informal. So when I got on board, I asked the diminutive stewardess if I could sit in the exit row. She looked slightly horrified and said, “Oh no, only able bodied can sit there.” I looked quizzically at her, and she gestured at men… ‘only able-bodied.’ Ah! The missing word was “man.” I looked at her, towering over her, and commented that I was taller and stronger than most of the men on board. She giggled, “Yes, you are worth at least two able bodied.” But she shrugged. “You cannot sit there. So sorry.”

The trip to Erbil was great. It was really fun to be up there, Kurdistan is very stable and safe, one doesn’t need security there, or at least, many up there feel that way, security firms of course will disagree. But that is their job, to scare you into needing them. Since Benton didn’t use security, I followed his lead, and drove around with him, went out to eat, went power shopping for ethnic goodies to decorate my room and office (yes more carpets).

But really enjoyed meeting my grantees: a political affairs magazine, one of whose reporters was assassinated last October for an anti-corruption story he did, and whose editor is constantly under threat and who carries a gun; a fabulous radio station which is doing an election program aimed at Iraqi displaced who need to know about voting process, a group of women journalists trying to form an association, a technical school which has a great little media department. Then Benton and his deputy came down here to Baghdad to do the same, staying in the same hotel with me, which is where our offices are.

Journalism Workshops in Baghdad

We have finally moved into our new office and my living space at a hotel in the red zone. I’m very glad to have finally made the move, and can really settle in. The hotel is busy, has two restaurants (one is quite good Chinese with a waiter who resembles Manuel from “Fawlty Towers”). The Chinese Mission lives/works here, hence good Chinese food. French media are moving in this spring, it’s a fun and lively place. Our rooms have river views, good light, it’s fine. I’ve still been commuting a lot INTO the IZ, the International Zone, as many of our election activities are occurring there.

The election work has been really fun. IREX opened up and organized a press center for the electoral commission, a place full of election materials and handouts, as well as a center for press conferences, and also the place where foreign press get their special election credentials, permitting them access to sensitive sites like polling places, voting centers, tallying centers, etc.

Part of what we have been doing is facilitating the acquisition of special badges for foreign press and their Iraqi staff. All press have to get a special IHEC (electoral commission) badge in order to gain access to polling sites, etc. This is for security reasons…to ensure that journalists are journalists and not bombers.

At some point IHEC decided that they wanted to add a compulsory code of ethics pledge onto the application form, which stated that there could be legal consequences, including removal of badges, for failure to adhere to the code. The press started to send outraged emails to me, how dare they, we have our own stringent ethics process, and what do they mean by legal processes.

I would forward these emails along to the UN, who is the agency working with IHEC to make the elections happen. I could tell that a frenzy was building, and then it became a story, about the IHEC trying to control the media. Attached are a few articles related to it. The Iraqi press picked it up too, and this was soon dominating the news here. I pleaded with the UN folks to just do something to make this go away, that it wasn’t helping anyone for this to become a story, regardless of whether or not there should have been a pledge on the form. At the 11th hour the IHEC decided to rescind that requirement, and fortunately, the brouhaha died down and went away.

Our 1st Press Conference

Right before we opened our press center, there was a big press conference at the MNFI (the US military basically) press center, with a US general, an Iraqi Brigadier General involved with Iraqi Security Forces, and an IHEC (electoral) commissioner. We were a little annoyed that this first big press conference was at MNFI and not our press center, but it was in fact a good thing. Their press center is fabulous, state of the art, with a great simultaneous translation system, lighting grid, projection system, etc. etc.

During the planning meeting for the above presser, someone mentioned that IHEC may now be requiring journalists to leave their shoes outside. The Iraqi general waggishly suggested that we hold future press conferences in mosques, as they are shoe-free environments.

My colleague Maha and I went and were dismayed, knowing that our fairly modest hotel conference room, which we didn’t have all the time and had to move in and out of, was not remotely as fancy or well set up as this. So immediately after that we bought some equipment and got ourselves as together as we could for our big opening presser.

Even without simultaneous translation, our opener went really well. We had the head of the UN, SRSG (Special Representative of the Secretary General) Staffan de Mestura there, as well as the chairman of the electoral commission Commissioner Faraj. There were two translators up front, so it was talk, pause, translate.

We had a very good turnout for these gentlemen, and it all went well. There was almost as much security around as press, the UN has a VERY heavy security details (recall the horrible bombing early on here killing Sergio de Mello), since then… very heavy security for them. IHEC also has heavy security so, between the two of them, the room was bristling with large armed men.

Preparing for the Elections

Wish I could say the same for the next one. The next one was just IHEC officials, 30 minutes before they still hadn’t decided who was actually going to speak, nor had they located their translator. They arrived (two commissioners), sat down, all of sudden there was a translator there (I had one standing by), the first commish started talking, and then the translator, instead of waiting for a pause, started doing simultaneous translation OUT LOUD. This meant that no one could understand a word with the Arabic and English going on, loudly, simultaneously.

I scurried over to her and whispered she should stop until he did and then talk, but HE NEVER STOPPED. He just kept on going and so she just kept on going. I kept trying to get her to stop but he didn’t give her a chance. Then the next commissioner started in, and she didn’t stop either. Nor did she talk into her mic, so no one could hear her either. Then another mic started shrieking feedback. Then of course the power went out at which point I started giggling in the dark. The lights came on and the back row of Iraqi journalists were all laughing at my melt down. During the Q&A, the first query was from a reporter who castigated them for not letting the translator do her job. So then they got her up there, and started waiting to let her speak. Argh.

The political cartoon program we initiated and have been broadcasting became very popular, and then the UN and IHEC and US Embassy approached us to do more Public Service Announcements and ads, so all of sudden our election work doubled in size (and budget) which while rewarding, has been fairly intense and exhausting. But basically we’re delighted that people like what we’re doing.

There are many other elections coming up this year (in Kurdistan, national elections end of year), so I imagine this might continue, although this was initially just an add-on to our regular programming. Meanwhile regular programming continues. I’m bringing in a US trainer for a few weeks in February, lining up some others for down the line, and getting back to our other work of media law advocacy, anti-corruption programs and more.

Moving out to the red zone means of course less of a social whirl, as I can’t drive into IZ at night, and so am in the hotel every night. So I will be coming into IZ on weekends (Thurs, leaving Sun morning) to see friends, go to parties etc. It’s fine, I was going out too much before.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.