By: David S. Hirschman
Iraqi dentist-turned-blogger Zeyad A., whose celebrated blog Healing Iraq has chronicled daily life in Baghdad since October of 2003, said Saturday that the Western media is missing a human perspective in its coverage of his country, and suggested reporters focus less on the government and more on what is being written on blogs by ordinary Iraqis.
Speaking at the Online News Association’s annual convention in Washington, Zeyad called local blogs a “main source of information” in Iraq, and said that Western media coverage was becoming more and more limited by increasing violence.
“Over the last year [the Western Media have not been] covering how bad it is,” he said. “Most of the coverage revolves around attacks against American forces. … They’re missing the sectarian violence that is going on in the country. It’s extrememly difficult for the Western media to get those stories because they have to be in the [local] neighborhoods.” He said that most Western reporters are “locked up” in certain parts of Baghdad, only able to file stories generated by local stringers (much as New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins described in a recent E&P story).
Zeyad said the Western reporters put a disproportionate focus on “irrelevant” news about the Iraqi government. “[The government] doesn’t control anything,” he said. “It doesn’t even control the Green Zone.”
Instead, he suggests, media reports should try to put more focus on the Iraqi people, and, in particular, on the stories they share on blogs and other online forums.
“You get a great insight,” he said, referring to blog entries from an 18-year-old Iraqi girl who describes her daily routine of passing through checkpoints simply to get to school. “You can put a face on it.”
A Baghdad native, Zeyad began blogging in 2003 — mostly for a Western audience — to help give this kind of on-the-ground perspective he felt was missing in Western news reports. He would collect information from family and friends, read as many local blogs as he could, write about demonstrations and other events in his neighborhood, take pictures, and post commentary.
“I thought I could spare an hour every day and write about what was going on,” he said. “[The blog medium] was very appropriate. It’s immediate, you can write about things as they happen, you can post photos immediately, and there’s no editing.”
For the most part, he says, his blog entries were positive, about his hopes for democracy in Iraq, and, as a result, he built a following of people who shared his views. When President Bush visited the country for Thanksgiving in 2003, Zeyad wrote “To tell the truth I’m still shocked to this moment that he took the risk to come here. I used to like him before, but now I admire the guy.”
Two months later, Zeyad wrote about the death of his cousin, who was caught by American troops while violating curfew, and drowned after being pushed into a river by the troops. His story was eventually picked up by media around the world, and one of the soldiers received prison time for his part in the incident.
As Zeyad turned, at times, more critical of the U.S. in his posts, he himself became the object of criticism. “I realized that some people were supporting me just because I was telling them what they wanted to hear. When I started saying something different, I lost some of that support.”
Throughout his blogging in Iraq, Zeyad says that he was fearful for his life because of what he was writing, and carefully weighed all of his posts to make sure he wasn’t revealing too much about himself or where he was. For a short synopsis of Zeyad’s blogging, visit the Web site Hearing Zeyad.
Speaking about the current situation in Baghdad, Zeyad described violence that was both random and fierce, with mortar shells shot each night by Sunnis and Shiites into one another’s neighborhoods, and young people with machine guns spraying bullets in the street. Not infrequently, he said, small gangs will kidnap and murder people from rival neighborhoods.
Asked whether he would call the situation in his country a “civil war,” he pointed to what he had described and said the answer depended on whether those conditions could be called a “civil war.”
“I think that’s a civil war,” he said. “I don’t know why the media does not use that word.”
Zeyad is currently living in New York, where he is studying at the City University of New York’s recently founded graduate school of journalism. He said he hopes to develop his reporting and editing skills so that he can later go back to his country (or to Jordan) and teach others.