By: Mike Ferner
Directly across the Tigris River from the offices of Al-Mada newspaper sit some of the most heavily bombed hulks of presidential palaces and government buildings from the U.S. invasion of last year. On this side of the river, concrete blast walls and razor wire extend past the paper’s offices located on Abu Nuwas Street in central Baghdad.
Zuhair Al-Jezairy, assistant managing editor, ignores the scenery as he escorts his guest past a small parking area into a modest courtyard dotted with palm trees. Sitting on the back porch of a gracious, 100-year-old house renovated into newsrooms and offices, he explains the logistics of publishing a morning daily in Iraq.
“We depend on car travel to distribute the paper,” Al-Jezairy says, after confirming with his circulation manager that the workday begins at 3:30 a.m. for the four drivers. “We take first to the central Baghdad distribution center, and then to other main cities — from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north, all by 10.” He acknowledged this schedule routinely results in speeding violations and “last month, two accidents.”
In production since last July, Al-Mada’s circulation is around 10,000, with occasional peak runs of 20,000. “We are limited by our presses, and plan to install more of them soon,” the wiry, 58-year-old newsman says. The mention of press capacity leads to the first discussion of the ousted Saddam Hussein government.
“Many presses belonged to the old government and religious parties, and several newspapers got access to them right after the war,” Al-Jezairy explains, adding that “the intelligence services had the modern printing presses. All the other ones were older, from the 1970s.”
Not long after the former government was toppled by the U.S. invasion, newspapers sprang up by the score, according to Al-Jezairy. “Under Saddam Hussein there were only three main papers, one for the Ba’ath Party, one for the Kurdish party, and one for the government, but they had essentially the same news and layout. Right after Saddam’s government fell we had over 100 papers, but some of them lasted only for a few issues.”
This explosion of newspapers magnified the shortage of printing presses and a shortage of journalists. Al-Jezairy recalls that “there had been two waves of emigration of intellectuals, in the late 1970s and again during the Iran-Iraq war and the sanctions.”
He recalls that in 1976, the government decreed that media and culture should fit in with Ba’ath Party ideology. Writers and others were required to sign a form stating they were joining the Ba’athists or at least refusing to join any other political organization, “forcing many journalists to leave.” Those who stayed were eventually circumscribed by the Hussein dictum: “It is not necessary for writers to report everything they know.” Al-Jezairy left Iraq in 1979, “a few days before” Saddam was nominated for president.
Covering the Lebanese civil war and other hot spots kept him busy for several years, earning him the nickname “correspondent of the boiling point,” as he worked under contract for such newspapers as Al-Hayat, Al-Hurria and Al-Safeer.
The next stop for the soft-spoken journalist was as senior producer for Associated Press Television News, a job that took him to the United States three times in the mid-90s. “Once was to do a feature on Islam and the West, one to cover the U.N. financial crisis, and one,” Al-Jezairy says, barely repressing a laugh, “was to cover the O.J. trial in Los Angeles.”
Returning to the vagaries of journalism in today’s Iraq, Al-Jezairy explains that “the older generation of reporters came from literature. Most of the newer generation had a two-year training in Baghdad University’s media college where they learned to write only short reports-and under Saddam Hussein they had to depend on his phrases to praise war and soldiers. That’s my problem with reporters today, they can’t criticize. But that is beginning to change now and the cover is coming off.”
Two other difficulties his reporters face are a lack of official sources and an abundance of rumors, both worsened when the government fell last April and documents were looted and burned. His paper tries to overcome this problem by requiring that reporters get confirmation from three sources.
Al-Mada’s biggest story so far, and one of the biggest to rock post-war Iraq, is dubbed the “Oil for Loyalty” series, a take-off on the UN’s “oil for food” program allowed under the sanctions. Oil for Loyalty chronicles corruption of international proportions. “Some people were our friends,” he says, “but we have to tell the truth.” The paper kicked off the story in February by publishing a list of 175 people who benefited from Saddam Hussein’s illegal largesse.
“The story had been unofficially know for some time by many people, but never proven until the government fell last year,” Al-Jezairy says. “Since we broke the story we have been threatened with lawsuits from many, many people around the world; the Iraqi Governing Council has begun meeting weekly on the subject to try and get some of the money back; and the international press has been very interested. Sometimes we give over 20 interviews a day and might have five or six journalists waiting in the office.” He adds that he has been interviewed by only two American journalists, however.
Was the American invasion and toppling of Saddam worth it, given the after-shocks? “To me it’s a complicated feeling,” Al-Jezairy says. “As a writer and human I can’t accept the war as a way to solve a problem but it was unfortunately the only way to get rid of Saddam. Most of the people I met think yes it deserves the high price of war and the situation after. There are some worries that the occupation will take longer time than they expected, and the American solders with their tanks in the streets increasing their daily problems.”
Asked what he sees in the future for his paper, Al-Jezairy quickly answers, “new printing presses,” followed by a description of the kind of issues Al-Mada will be known for: “We will cover the effort to get rights for women and other important political stories. There is a lot of interest in Saddam Hussein’s family, and in crime. Several other papers concentrate on this, but not Al-Mada.”