By: KELVIN CHILDS
In Baghdad, correspondent ponders strength of U.N. accord ? and satellite phone rates
THE SHADOW OF war has lightened, but not fully lifted, from the Middle East, as diplomats wrangle over a U.N.-brokered deal requiring Iraq to allow inspections of weapons sites. A number of Western reporters flocked into Baghdad to cover the negotiations ? and flocked out again after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced an accord with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But they may have gone too soon, said Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor.
“I don’t think the story’s finished,” said Peter-son, the Monitor’s Middle East correspondent. “There’s a widespread feeling that there’s going to be a hiccup, and when it comes, something drastic will happen.”
Peterson described his work in a telephone interview. He has been in the Middle East since June 1996, following a year as Balkans correspondent based in Zagreb, Croatia. He also has reported for London’s Daily Telegraph and as a freelance from Jordan, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Yugoslavia and North Africa.
Peterson is based in Amman, Jordan, but got a visa to enter Iraq in early February, when Washington and Baghdad were engaging in brinksmanship over U.N. weapons inspections of Iraq’s presidential palaces. Until Feb. 19, he said, the only other Western print reporters around were from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald.
Then an influx of reporters came, on flights from Cyprus and Kuwait arranged by the United Nations, to cover the Feb. 20 visit of the secretary general.
Annan arrived as the United States was readying a military strike in an effort to force Iraq to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into presidential palaces and other sites believed to house weapons of mass destruction. But Annan and Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, signed an agreement Feb. 23 giving U.N. inspectors unrestricted access to the sites. Iraq’s compliance is a condition for lifting U.N. economic sanctions imposed after the Persian Gulf War. A team of U.N. weapons inspectors arrived in Iraq March 5, led by American Scott Ritter, whom the Iraqis had accused of being a spy.
Before Annan’s trip, it had been notoriously difficult for print reporters to get visas to enter Iraq, and Peterson can’t point to any reason why his was granted when others were not. But it has been much easier for TV reporters to get in.
Peterson found it striking that one can see so many TV crews around, and hardly any print or radio reporters. The Iraqis “recognize that television is a very powerful medium, if not the most powerful medium, for shaping public opinion,” he said. The government has enough media savvy to know that its message can travel the world via CNN and BBC with an immediacy that print just cannot match.
“At the end of the day, I think the real crux of the matter is that the Iraqis get their messages across” on TV, he said.
Still, he feels good about his work, although he cannot travel the country unfettered. “There are certain limitations as to what you can do, and you work within those parameters,” he said. Foreign reporters are accompanied by functionaries ? Iraqis call them “guides” ? from the Ministry of Information. Their permission is required before photos are taken or interviews are conducted.
“You might not get to take every photo you want, or interview every person you want, but you get most of what you need,” Peterson said. In fact, the limits were expanded during the height of the crisis, he said.
At other times, there are human interest stories about the effects of the economic sanctions on regular people ? legitimate stories in their own right, even if they serve Iraqi PR interests.
As for his safety, “I have yet to be in a situation where I have felt threatened by any Iraqis,” Peterson said, even though he has covered anti-American protests where crowds chanted “Death to the USA!” It doesn’t get personal, Peterson said, adding that he has felt more danger in Africa, where his nationality put him at risk with angry mobs.
The greatest boon to foreign correspondents is the satellite telephone, he said, expressing amazement at how many people employ them as “an absolutely critical piece of equipment.”
The battery-operated phones are compact ? smaller even than laptop computers ? “and they’re cheap, too,” at about $4,000, plus use charges of $2.80 a minute. “In Somalia, the wires would charge us $40 a minute to use their phone,” he said, and the phones themselves cost up to $40,000. With the newer phones and lower rates, it’s much easier to pack up and go.
?(Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor reporter) [Photo & Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 14, 1998)