Widely read, respected and awarded commentator on regional issues, journalist Robert Fisk, recently made another visit to Iraq. NIQASH spoke with him about Iraqi media, the problem with bloggers and why some Iraqis might wish Saddam Hussein was still around.
NIQASH: You’ve been in Iraq many times over the past 34 years – in fact, you’ve witnessed some of this nation’s most recent, pivotal moments. In your opinion, what do you feel may be the solution to the country’s biggest problems now?
Robert Fisk: Education, education, education. Of all the problems Arabs suffer from – the problems that don’t involve outside powers – that is the basic problem I find here. When people can’t write their own names in Arabic, there’s something wrong. At the end of the day you have to put serious money into education. But in reality, what usually happens is this: “oh, you want to learn? Then you’ll have to go abroad”. So the indigenous population who either don’t want to leave, or who cannot afford to leave, remain ignorant of the world.
NIQASH: At least, post 2003 (when a US-led invasion toppled the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein), it’s possible to speak freely now?
Fisk: I’m not sure how freely you can in Baghdad. That was really well put to me by an Iraqi friend recently. When you got on the bus [and you were having a conversation], under Saddam, you knew what you couldn’t say. Now you don’t know what you can and cannot say – because you just don’t know who’s sitting next to you.
When I first came here, Iraq was a very prosperous country – under Saddam of course. And in the aftermath of the 2003 chaos, with the murders and mass killings, Iraqis would often say to me: “do we want security and dictatorship? Or do we want freedom and anarchy?” And if you’re frightened your child would be kidnapped or that you would lose your family, you tended to say you preferred the old regime. Which was tragic and very sad but I suppose understandable.
Because of the appalling situation that the Americans permitted to happen after 2003 – which Donald Rumsfeld was very much responsible for, and Paul Bremer [head of Iraq’s first interim government post-Hussein] – and because of the resistance to the Americans, it gave freedom a sour taste for many Iraqis.
NIQASH: So the biggest problem here isn’t sectarianism?
Fisk: All the Western governments that have been involved in the Middle East since the First World War have worked on the principle that the governments should work on a sectarian system. When the Americans arrived [here] they basically set up a sectarian government.
What happens is we create this sectarian system and we call it democratic – admittedly it’s a lot more democratic then under Saddam – but you lock [the country] in and then it becomes part of the national identity and you can’t get out of it.
But look at Lebanon. To become a modern state, it must abandon confessionalism. But if it did, then Lebanon wouldn’t exist anymore. If a society is tribal, that doesn’t mean it cannot have a civil society. But it is the Iraqis that have to do it [create a civil society for themselves].
NIQASH: In comparison to when you began reporting from the Middle East, Arab journalists appear to have much more of a voice, and much more visibility, in the Western media. There seems to be a lot more potential for them.
Fisk: It depends on the country. For example Egypt under the British had relative press freedom and they learned reporting responsibly, that you can’t just print the latest rumour or lie. Actually I think we’re doing that in the West now – we’re replicating the worst sins of the Arab press. Not on printed paper, but in blogs, that lie and abuse and that are fuelled by hatred. Anyway our Western reporting is appalling at times – I would rather that Arabs learn how they want to be journalists, with their own rules.
NIQASH: Please explain?
Fisk: Well, we’re talking about what journalists should be taught. But it’s the governments that should be taught - how to treat journalists. Journalists should challenge government. And when they challenge the government here [in Iraq] they are told they are unpatriotic and they are threatened.
We’re not threatened in Britain – well, we are in some ways – but here it’s the government that needs to be educated to respect the press and press freedoms, and to realise that the press also protects governments.
NIQASH: In your opinion, how can more balanced and independent reporting be encouraged in Iraq?
Fisk: One of the things you might do is see whether you can construct a consortium of Iraqis – perhaps those who live abroad, perhaps those who have money – that could establish a new kind of newspaper, a really fine newspaper, which represents the whole country. Let that newspaper represent all points of view and let it become a forum for everybody. There isn’t a paper anywhere in the whole of the country that does that.
But it would have to come from outside of Iraq. One of the many problems I have found in the Arab world is that patriotism often wins over freedom.
NIQASH: The question of whether journalists can ever be truly objective has been debated for decades. And a more recent discussion has centred on how much room more extreme viewpoints should be given, just for the sake of balance – even when they’re clearly more extreme and possibly even factually inaccurate. Reports coming out of Syria are a good example. Your thoughts on this debate, in a Middle Eastern context?
Fisk: I’ve spoken about this before. If you’re reporting on a local football match or a government debate, you can give equal time to both sides. But the main issues in the Middle East are a bloody tragedy and my view is that you have to be biased toward the side of those who suffer. For instance, you can’t always give equal space to the Israelis and the Palestinians. Because Israel is occupying Palestine, Palestine is not occupying Israel. There’s a difference.
And if you were covering the slave trade in the 18th century, you wouldn’t give as much room to the slave traders.
NIQASH: And how do you feel about so-called “citizen journalism”?
Fisk: I like the phrase actually because it implies that journalism can be taken out of the hands of the rather pompous, arrogant senior correspondents. But my problem with citizen journalism is that some of it just isn’t true.
If you look at some of the stuff coming out of Syria – there are reports of somebody being beheaded and then they turn up on national television. Or the lesbian blogger in Damascus who turned out to be a man.
And citizen journalism is also used to fuel hatred - bloggers lying or spending all their time saying other people are lying - then that just takes you back to the worst elements of dictator journalism.
You need a newspaper-type organisation really, and it doesn’t matter whether that is online or on paper. A big émigré-backed Iraqi newspaper with the finest production techniques and tough, brave editors – that’s what is needed.
NIQASH: And finally, your advice to Iraqi journalists working today?
Fisk: Challenge everybody.
Interview conducted by Henrik Ahrens, Director of the Media Academy Iraq, based in Erbil. The Media Academy hosted a lecture by Robert Fisk recently. Fisk has covered most of the major conflicts in the Middle East and holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent; he continues to write a regular column for the UK’s Independent newspaper.