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getting half the story
behind the scenes with arab media at the summit

Mustafa Habib
Journalists from around the region flocked to Baghdad for last week’s Arab League summit. Some expected to find a war zone; instead they found five-star hotels and goodie bags. But many still feel they only…
5.04.2012  |  Baghdad

The scene: a modern, air-conditioned bus bringing a media delegation from the airport into Baghdad on the eve of the Arab League summit. The players: a number of journalists from different Arab nations, sporting different dialects but chatting with one another.

“I thought I was going to a battle ground,” an Algerian journalist remarked.

“Yes, things have changed dramatically in Baghdad,” a local journalist replied.

For many of the media on this bus, just the idea of driving along the airport road was their version of a “terrifying nightmare,” as Abdallah al-Haj, a journalist from the popular and widely distributed Egyptian daily, Al Ahram, said.

Previously this road, the only one that connects Baghdad city with the airport, had been known as the “road of death” because of the amount of incendiary devices planted here and vehicles bombed. Things were very different now though – and further special security precautions had been taken to ensure the safety of all visitors to the Arab League summit, the first meeting of members of the Arab League to be held in Baghdad for over two decades.

The first thing al-Haj did next was text his wife to tell her he’d made it down the airport road and into Baghdad OK.

Some of the other journalists took pictures through the bus’ windows as it wove its way around Baghdad’s residential streets. The streets seemed strangely empty to the visitors.

“Don’t you have people in Iraq?” al-Haj asked.

It had to be explained that the state had imposed a curfew during the conference, blocked the main roads – all those close to major hotels or leading into the Green Zone, a well protected area that was the former headquarters to US forces - interrupted mobile phone services and local markets had closed. It was all part of the security plan for the summit.

Still al-Haj didn’t seem to mind. So far, at least. A couple of hours later, he wasn’t quite as happy. He’d wanted to leave the summit and take a good look at Baghdad.

“I’d hoped that the Iraqi government might organise some sort of field trip for us, so that we could speak with locals and hear what they had to say,” he complained. “But it seems we’re not really allowed to move around the city.”

True, although there were no official restrictions on journalists, the security measures in full effect made it difficult to move very far from one’s hotel. Just as the people of Baghdad felt they were imprisoned in their own homes, so the visiting journalists felt they were trapped in their hotels.

“It’s almost impossible to find a taxi or a car to take you anywhere in the city,” Ahmed Farghali, a journalist from Bahrain’s leading daily, Al Ayam, said. Farghali had hoped to get a better look at Baghdad, to imbibe its history and take some photographs to accompany his reports. But, as he explains, “the head of media centre told us not to leave the hotel. And I assume they’re saying this for our own protection.”

In the end, a lot of the visiting media had to rely on local journalists, who were able to move around more, for information on how Baghdad’s 7.5 million inhabitants really live.

“Without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to get the coverage we did,” Farghali noted.

On the other hand, the hotels allocated to visiting media were not such a bad place to be. The best hotels in Baghdad had been renovated to accommodate the visitors and foreign firms were contracted to provide almost all the services, from cooking to cleaning. Summit delegates also received gift packs and these included such choice items as a local mobile phone number, stationery and even a suit for formal occasions.

Although Turkey’s bid to attend the conference as an observer – it has had similar ambitions for the Arab League in general – was denied because the conference was for “Arabs only” (Iran was also turned down for the same reasons), the Turkish were very present at the summit. The contractors that organised almost everything – from road reconstruction to hotel renovations, stationery and floral arrangements – were Turkish.

In fact there were so many Turkish staff members, that visiting Arab journalists had problems communicating. A lot of the hospitality staff spoke two languages: English and Turkish. Hardly any of them spoke Arabic.

“I’m not sure if I’m in Baghdad or Turkey,” one Kuwaiti journalist joked.

Further into the Arab journalists’ stay in Baghdad, more problems arose. Specifically with the press centre. Unlike the luxury hotels and gift packs, the media centre was small and not well equipped.

“And press access was difficult, we couldn’t reach the sources we needed either,” Mubarak Ahmed, a Kuwaiti broadcast journalist, said. “there were also some officials who deliberately withheld a lot of information we needed.”

“There were some gaps,” admitted Tahseen al-Sheikhly, member of the organising committee for media attending the Baghdad summit, explaining that this was due to the number of journalists covering the event. There were more than a thousand, he said.

Iraqi journalists had a lot more to complain about. In general, it seemed that the criteria for accreditation at the event were highly subjective and independent media from around Iraq had problems getting their delegated journalists into the summit.

His organisation had received dozens of complaints, Ziad al-Ujaili, head of the Media Freedom Monitor organization in Baghdad, told NIQASH.

Although some organizations said they applied several weeks before the summit, it seemed that their applications were either neglected or refused for apparently specious reasons. “The government resents the sort of coverage it gets from independent publications and it gives preference to pro-government journalists and broadcasters,” one Iraqi journalist said.

The government-owned broadcaster, the Iraqiya satellite television channel, allegedly got better access to the summit than most of their colleagues – and especially colleagues working for independent or non-partisan outlets.

Local journalists also had to deal with the security lockdown in Baghdad. Many of them couldn’t reach their offices and some publications actually had to stop publishing because their printers couldn’t work.

“The government is trying to make Baghdad look better with this summit,” al-Ujaili said. “But tough security measures mean that it’s lost popular support and it’s also lost the opportunity to have local media cover this event fully. Dozens of newspapers couldn’t be printed and journalists couldn’t reach their workplaces.”

As Amir Hamid, a journalist for the Baghdad daily, told NIQASH: “Iraqi journalists were victims of the security lock down too – roads were blocked and we all had a very hard time.”

Certainly this week, the media that attended the summit have gone back to work, whether in Iraq or further afield, with interesting memories. For the Iraqi journalists, forced to spend nights in their offices and live on canned food, some of those memories might be somewhat sour. And while foreign media had a better time in their luxury hotels, even they feel that they only got half the picture and saw only a small part of the realities of Iraq today.