How Pittsburgh Reporter Met Sean Penn in Baghdad

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By: Sonya Moore

In the midst of Sean Penn’s widely-publicized Iraq commentary/travelogue for the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month, there was a scene where the actor drops in on an Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) class for Iraqi journalism students. The surprise instructor: an American reporter in Baghdad.

Betsy Hiel, mentioned briefly by Penn, is a prize-winning correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Click for QuikCap). She was back at home in Pittsburgh for a break when E&P caught up with the war correspondent before she headed back to Iraq.

The Tribune-Review’s Middle East correspondent since May 2000, Hiel, 41, started covering the war after entering northern Iraq in late February 2003. She appears uniquely qualified for this beat: With a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a master’s in Arab Studies, she also studied at the American University in Cairo and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and speaks Arabic adeptly.

Hiel described her encounter with Penn as pleasant and that he was a nice person. She added with a laugh, “You don’t expect to meet a movie star in Baghdad, let me put it that way.”

Her involvement with IWPR came about while she was working on an investigative series on mass graves in Iraq. IWPR asked her to volunteer some time to talk to Iraqi journalism students about her work. IWPR, a nongovernmental organization, works around the world, many times in areas of conflict, to strengthen journalism through training with the help of local and international journalists, as well as running a news information site (www.iwpr.net) that carries reports from each area of operation. IWPR currently runs programs in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Central Asia and Belarus, as well as Iraq.

Hiel told E&P it was her first time helping with the IWPR when Sean Penn captured her in his commentary. She agreed to help the IWPR because “I had seen what their work was doing.” Hiel said that speaking to former students, she saw how excited and enthusiastic they were about what they learned. She also knew of the difficulties for journalism in Iraq, and that there was a necessity for a strong press “which is important for any country trying to move to democracy.”

She estimates Iraq has approximately 180 different newspapers varying from single-page leaflets to full-fledged papers. The political tone varies just as much, with coalition-supported papers, to even one based in London run by a former Baathist who had fled the country.

Hiel’s class of 15 was a motley mix: “Some were young. Some were former military generals and admirals trying to reinvent themselves, which was very interesting.” She said her students were “very bright, and very eager.” Hiel also let them follow her and play an active part in the journalistic process. When U.S. forces were going after insurgents in Operation Iron Hammer, Hiel’s class interviewed people in areas that were bombed and even had the opportunity to attend a press conference held by one of the U.S. generals.

“I think they had a lot of questions about how to do things,” Hiel said. One of the things she had to teach her students was the necessity to differentiate between fact and rumors. The students would say, “Everyone knows this,” about information they had and Hiel would have to question them with: “Well, how does everyone know this?”

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