Supporting Iraqi Radio Journalists (Interview with Anja Wollenberg)

Supporting Iraqi Radio Journalists
Interview with Anja Wollenberg, Media in Cooperation & Transition (Berlin/Amman)
By Geert Lovink

Media in Cooperation & Transition (MICT) is a Berlin-based organization that was founded in late 2004 out of a radio program that was conducted as Iraqi German cooperation (TELEPHONE FM, by streamminister) and that was broadcasted in Baghdad. With an emphasis on cooperation, mixing Internet streaming technology with old school radio techniques MICT is running media projects ever since with Iraqi partners in Iraq, addressing an Iraqi audience. MICT-projects have a focus on the political process in Iraq, respectively the elections and the constitutional process in the last year. MICT is run by Klaas Glenewinkel an Anja Wollenberg and could be considered a sister organization of Streamtime, the support campaign for Iraqi bloggers, in which I am involved, with, in fact, equally strong roots in radio and streaming. This interview could be read as a follow-up of the one I did with Streamtime member Cecile Landman, earlier this year.

GL: Your website looks slick and corporate. Yet, there can’t be a more unglamorous place to work than Iraq. It seems such a big contrast. How do you deal with this? Free and independent radios and newspapers in Iraq seem to be involved in such a heroic and titanic struggle.

AW: In Iraq today you will find a high degree on plurality in the media landscape, professionalism in reporting has increased dramatically, governmental censorship has vanished and the right to free speech is generally given, although seriously damaged by the growing lack of protection for journalists. But independency is definitely missing. It has not developed yet in the field of media. There is no market, no market research, no legal framework. Instead media in Iraq are with almost no exception partisan and biased. In lack of a market they depend on donors and donors are rarely free of interest when it comes to the Iraqi situation. From my point of view the current struggle in Iraq is in the first place not about freedom, democracy or independence. It is primarily about power and its redistribution. The political conflicts revolve around this, the constitutional process did revolve around this, the elections do and the media are hopelessly and actively involved in this process of redistribution. Independency is lip service in Iraq today. It will only become reality in the framework of an according law, on the ground of an emerging market and a less fragile power situation. But from what I understood the Iraqi user, reader, viewer is quite capable to differentiate. As media users Iraqis derive from a tradition of political propaganda. Not trust but distrust in media is the common attitude. In general they tend to make use of different media sources including foreign Broadcasters such as Al-Jazeera, Radio Monte Carlo and BBC World. How do we deal with contrast? The 50 team-members we worked with in the last year came from 5 different countries and were located in 3 different places (Amman, Iraq and Germany). Contradicting views and environments were an essential part of our daily work. Therefore the structure of cooperation, the culture of communication and the design of the editorial workflows gradually adapted to the need for creating common perspectives with those involved on a daily basis. That is a challenge, indeed.

GL: Over the past year or so you have been giving media trainings in Amman, Jordan to Iraqi radio journalists. What have your experiences been so far?

AW: The participants for the trainings we do are mostly the correspondents for the media-projects we run. Trainings are embedded in an ongoing cooperation and they are usually combined with a workshop where we discuss concept and content for the upcoming program with the correspondents. This has always been an extraordinary experience with the Iraqi colleagues. They are absolutely committed to their work and they like very much to engage in this kind of discussion. Most of them understand journalism as a moral mission. They act in the name of truth as a symbol for a new decade. To me this belief in truth and the effort to erase subjectivity from journalistic work may bring along problems though. Journalists, who are not reflecting on and dealing with their subjectivity but just reject it, become vulnerable for abuse in the power struggle that Iraq is going through. As I said: media in Iraq are biased and partisan. You cannot ignore that, but many Iraqi journalists tend to do so. Another observation is quite interesting: a multitude of international media institutions (dpa, reuters, BBC, Deutsche Welle, MICT, IWPR, CNN, RFI, UN…) is offering media training to Iraqi journalists who attend workshops, trainings and conferences in high numbers. These journalists became a community with a fairly high level of competence and the belonging to this community, the attendance of foreign training measures become a ticket for the entrance in the Iraqi media field. At the same time, Iraqi institutions for the education of journalists are not undergoing any kind of reconstruction. The head of the department for mass media at the university in Baghdad is still the same as it was 10 years ago. This gap is really wide open.

GL: Looking at the Election Monitor site that you’ve produced, there are only data from the first elections in January 2005. What was your aim when you set it up, back in 2004? Two more elections happened so far. What happened to your project? Was it a trail? Did it run out of money?

AW: Building up on the project election monitor Iraq, we are running a program called Niqash since Feb.2005 until today ( Niqash is a political radio show and a Webpage that both aim to provide balanced and comprehensive reporting on the public debates in Iraq concerning the political process, respectively the constitutional process and the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the elections in December. The Website is in three languages (Arabic, Kurdish and English) whereas the radio show is in Arabic only (we only recently started a Kurdish version). Our main focus is not reporting facts but arguments, positions and political concepts of the involved players such as lists, parties, clerics, NGOs, consultants and candidates. This way the program is portraying the dynamics and the anatomy of political conflicts in Iraq which we consider as more important than distributing naked information. The interest on the Website was fairly high: In the forefront of the elections in December 2005 we had about 2000 visitors daily, most of them from the arab world. Part of the website is a Blog section. We translated the WordPress Interface into Arabic so Niqash-users that do not speak English can implement a blog. But interest in this feature is rather low until today. The contributions we work with for the radio show are created and delivered by 30 Iraqi journalists working in 8 different provinces of Iraq. Niqash is based on these contributions and is broadcasted through. 16 FM-radio stations in Iraq until today. The montage and production takes place in the MICT-office in Amman. The fact that contributions come from Iraqi journalists from inside and all parts of Iraq (not only Baghdad) and the fact that Niqash is broadcasted through partners in the entire country is most essential for the profile of our work. The project was financed by the German Foreign Ministry and supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation until the end of March 2006. Since May we receive funds from the Belgium Foreign Ministry for qualification of journalists and reporting on the upcoming legislative and constitutional process.

GL: What do you make of the countless Iraqis that actually move out of the country? Yong talent that leaves, instead of returns. This is sad, don’t you think?

AW: I agree: one after the other is leaving Iraq and the country is about to loose a great part of its intellectual and artistic potential in an ever increasing speed. That is a horrifying observation, indeed, like attending a slow starvation. But most of the artists, journalists and academics that left recently remain in some kind of a waiting position at the outside borders of Iraq in Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo….. Actually, every Iraqi in Exile that we met is depicting a life outside Iraq as painful and they all plan to go home eventually. But now the Shiite Islamists have taken over power in Iraq, the south of Iraq is strengthening its relations with Iran, religious dogmatism is growing stronger fast. This development makes the return of intellectuals, academics and artists less likely. For the future of Iraq it is extremely important to keep those people, that recently left connected to their friends and colleagues that stayed in Iraq. Relations between inside and outside are crucial for the cultural, political and social development in Iraq. But the relations unfortunately tend to turn hostile once a person left. From those that stay, leaving is perceived as a betrayal to the homeland, the community, the people and family. From this notion the act of emigration is loaded with a feeling of guilt and the relation Exile Iraqies have to their homeland communities is often tense. One of our next projects, starting in summer will focus on this issue.

GL: Do you also see a (silent) withdrawal of outside support, since around mid 2004, for the people in Iraq?

AW: It depends which outside you mean. USA is as outside as Europe and as the Arab world and as the UN. According to their interests, they all relate completely different to Iraq, some have increased attention some have turned away. Iran for instance is very much increasing support for religious communities in the south by providing financial means and resources. European NGOs as a matter of fact withdraw because it is almost impossible for them to work in Iraq. European states are on hold since there is still no government to talk to. GL: You didn´t want to publish this interview a few months ago. What was the reason? AW: Since we received funds from the German government, we were asked not to extra-promote our activities as long as the two German engineers from Leipzig were kidnapped. They are free now. As you might remember, in the beginning the kidnappers articulated political demands including the termination of all German engagement in Iraq. Advertising our projects in this time could have complicated the situation, endangering the life of the hostages.