16 januar, 2007

Irak: hvorfor medierne træder ved siden af

Fra New York Post, en artikel, der fortjener at være pligtlæsning på de danske udenrigs-redaktioner:

JUST outside Um al-Qasar, a port in south east Iraq, a crowd had gathered around a British armored car with a crew of four. An argument seemed to be heating up through an interpreter.

The interpreter told the Brits that the crowd was angry and wanted U.K. forces out of Iraq. But then a Kuwaiti representative of Amnesty International, accompanied by a journalist friend, approached - and found the crowd to be concerned about something quite different.
The real dispute? The day before, a British armored vehicle had an accident with a local taxi; now the cab's owner, backed by a few friends, was asking the Brits to speed up compensating him. Did these Iraqis want the Brits to leave, as the interpreter pretended? No, they shouted, a thousand times no!

So why did the interpreter inject that idea into the dialogue? Shaken, he tried a number of evasions: Well, had the Brits not been in Iraq, there wouldn't have been an accident in the first place. And, in any case, he knows that most Iraqis don't want foreign troops . . .

*

Since 2003, Iraq has experienced countless similar scenes, with interpreters, guides and "fixers" projecting their views and prejudices into the dialogue between Iraqis and the outside world.

Immediately after liberation, interpreting and "fixing" for the Coalition and for hundreds of foreign media people became a cottage industry, employing thousands. Most of those were former Ba'athist officials, often from the Ministry of Information or media companies owned by Saddam Hussein and his relatives. Some tried to curry favor with the new masters; others decided to wage political guerrilla war against the "invaders" by misleading them. Both ended up offering a twisted view of post-liberation Iraq.

The industry geared itself to meeting demand. In 2004, for example, many journalists coming to Baghdad wanted to interview the "militants" who were attacking U.S. soldiers. The industry obliged by arranging interviews.

One popular interviewee was one "Abu Muhammad," who claimed to be a fisherman by day and "a killer of Americans" by night. One U.K. paper paid $2,000 (a tidy sum in the cash-starved Baghdad of those days) for an exclusive with Abu Muhammad, who later took up a full chapter in a book published in London. The scam ended when someone found out that Abu Muhammad was, in fact, a busboy at a local hotel who'd grown a beard and was "fishing" Western journalists, splitting the proceeds with his cousin, who acted as interpreter and guide.

From 2004 onward, the situation improved. A new generation of Iraqi journalists with no Ba'athist background started to help Western colleagues. And Americans and Brits began hiring interpreters from outside Iraq, notably from ethnic Arab communities back home.

The new interpreters had some handicaps: They did not understand many Iraqi expressions and nuances; and Iraqis recognized them as non-Iraqis and were suspicious. Still, they were an improvement, for few had hidden agendas. ...

From the start, the war was also waged in Western circles, with their pro- and anti-war camps. A newspaper that had opposed the war would not tolerate "positive reporting" from Baghdad. One young British reporter who didn't understand that was surprised to see himself shifted to Paris to become a European correspondent. He had made the mistake of reporting that Iraq looked almost like a success, given where it had come from.

With the bulk of the media having opposed Saddam's ouster, negative reporting from Iraq became the norm. (Afghanistan gets a better press; Western elites are at worst ambivalent about the Taliban's fall.)

*

Another problem is that Iraq has become the focus of anti-American passions. Millions want Iraq to fail so that the United States will be humiliated. And Iraqis watch satellite TV - including channels from Iran, Egypt and Qatar that make a point of presenting post-liberation Iraq as a tragic quagmire. When CNN and the BBC send a similar message, Iraqis can be persuaded that their country is lost.

Imagine a resident of, say, Mandali or Nasseriah, who is told day and night that Iraq is sinking in a sea of fire and blood. He looks around and sees no evidence of that - but one can't blame him if he thinks that what the media say must be true in other parts of Iraq.

The fact that more than 90 percent of the violence that dominates reporting from Iraq takes place in five neighborhoods in Baghdad, plus one of the 18 Iraqi provinces, is neither here nor there. The perception is that all of Iraq is lost.

The old rule in the news business still holds: "If it bleeds, it leads." Stories about suicide attacks and carnage are more attractive than boring stuff about the emergence of a pluralist political consciousness and the mushrooming of thousands of small businesses. ...

Last month, Iraq received the U.N.'s special environmental prize for reviving parts of the marshes drained by Saddam, thus saving one of the world's most precious ecological treasures. Almost no one in the media noticed.

Also last month, the Iraqi soccer squad reached the finals of the Asian Games - beating out Japan, China, South Korea and Iran. Again, few in the West noticed.

In 2006, almost 200 major reconstruction projects were officially completed and 4,000 new private companies registered in Iraq. But few seem interested in the return of private capitalism after nearly 50 years of Soviet-style control.

Iraq's new political life is either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. The creation of political parties (some emerging from decades of clandestine life), the work of Iraq's parliament, the fact that it is almost the only Arab country where people are free to discuss politics to their hearts' content - these are of no interest to those determined to see Iraq as a disaster, as proof that toppling Saddam was a modern version of the original sin.

Iraq may still become any of those things - but right now it is none of them. When the real history of the Iraq war is written, posterity might marvel at the way modern media were used to manufacture that original sin.

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