Iraqi fixers take the flack for U.S. media

A new report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and a panel discussion in New York City, demonstrate just how much the U.S. media have come to rely on Iraqi fixers to bring the news home.
By Jackson Allers and Alaa Majeed
For many U.S. journalists in Iraq, embedding with U.S. troops has become the main method of reporting. As a result, the impact of the war on average Iraqis has gone underreported. © AFP

BEIRUT / NEW YORK, Dec. 3, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) - The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), in partnership with the Washington DC based public policy think tank, the Pew Research Center, released a report last week called  "Journalists in Iraq: A survey of reporters on the front lines." 

The PEJ culled the responses from 111 Western journalists "who have worked or are currently working in Iraq" in order to create a fuller picture of what it means to be a reporter in Iraq.

The survey was conducted by the PEJ between late September and early November of 2007, and it is the preliminary report to a "content analysis of the coverage on the ground from Iraq" that will be released later this year.

According to the PEJ:

"Above all, the journalists - most of  them veteran war correspondents - describe conditions in Iraq as the most perilous they have ever encountered, and this above everything else is influencing the reporting. A majority of the journalists surveyed (57 percent) report that at least one of their Iraqi staff had been killed or kidnapped in the last year alone - and many more are continually threatened."

Indeed, the dangers faced by local Iraqi staff was among the most common themes to emerge from the survey. Journalists from 29 news organizations, all but one of them U.S.-based, talked openly about relying on locals to do the the nuts and bolts reporting duties, while they holed up in the Green Zone or went out in the field embedded with the U.S.-military.

The pie chart below shows just how much U.S. media organizations in Iraq rely on local staff.

The executive summary goes on to state:

"Even the basics of getting the story are remarkably difficult. Outside of the heavily fortified Green Zone, most U.S. journalists must rely on local staff to do the necessary face-to-face reporting. Yet nearly nine out of ten journalists say their local staff cannot carry any equipment - not even a notebook - that might identify them as working for the western media for fear of being killed. Some local staffers do not even tell their own families."

And while the reporters surveyed in the PEJ report praised their own coverage of American troop activity, they were less praiseworthy of their own coverage of the suffering of the average Iraqi.

As one TV journalist offered: "There are too few reports that include Iraqi citizens - not Green Zone politicians but regular folks. We need to hear their voices.' "
Adding to this commentary, one newspaper correspondent in the report was quoted as saying that the press has failed to convey the “suffering of ordinary Iraqis and the impact the war has had on average citizen."

Whatever the problems, a magazine reporter offered, “The press have carried out the classic journalistic mission of bearing witness.”

But it is a different kind of journalism, as one bureau chief stated: “Welcome to the new world of journalism, boys and girls. This is where we lost our innocence. Security teams, body armor and armored cars will forever now be pushed in between journalism and stories."

The full report is available here in PDF format.

Meanwhile, the subject of Iraqi fixers and the U.S. media was also the subject of a panel discussion held at New York City's New School last week, which Alaa Majeed, herself a former fixer in Iraq, covered for MENASSAT.COM.

Entitled "Double Jeopardy", the panel discussion focussed on the dangers faced by Iraqi fixers, translators and employees whether they work for American media outlets, non-governmental organizations, companies or the U.S. government itself.

One of those present at the conference was Nour Al Khal, a young Iraqi journalist who was working with U.S. journalist Steven Vincent, author of 'In the Red Zone: A Journey to the Soul of Iraq', when he was shot and killed in Basra in the summer of 2005. Al Khal herself was shot three times during the kidnapping which left Vincent dead.

Five months ago, Al Khal was able to emigrate to the Unites States with the help of Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci, eighteen months after first filing for asylum. Al Khal described the humiliation she felt during the whole process.

"I call the wall of the U.S. embassy in Amman the 'wall of humiliation'. Whenever we needed to go to the embassy, we would have to report at the gate at 3 a.m. but nobody would even come out until 3 p.m. We were treated like animals", Al Khal said.

She explained how much she missed her family, who she last saw in 2006. "I sometimes ask them to be on the Internet so that I can talk to them. But they tell me that they can't even send me emails because they are afraid that the extremists are monitoring them."

Ayub Nori, another panelist, is a former Iraqi fixer who made it to the States and graduated from Columbia School of Journalism in 2007. He is currently a journalist-in-residence at War News Radio out of Swarthmore College.

Nori explained the word 'fixer' as a local person who knows the language, the place, the culture, politics and the different political parties and groups in a country and uses this knowledge to help foreign journalists report.

"A fixer faces a huge risk in Iraq because he or she is surrounded by many unknown enemies, unlike other war zones where you have only two sides fighting each other", Nori explained.

He also said that this situation has affected the amount of news getting to the outside world as there is a limited access to most areas in Iraq and the risk are huge, even for an Iraqi fixer or a translator. "The coverage has shrunk now and what we read on the news today doesn't represent the real situation in Iraq at all".

The discussion also touched on the Iraqi refugee problem, and how it relates to fixers and translators who worked for U.S. companies.

In 2005, out of 70,000 refugees allowed to come to the U.S., there were only 202 Iraqis. Later on, fifty Iraqi and Afghani translators were allowed in under a special Pentagon program.

Lisa Ramaci, Vincent's widow and the founder of the Steven Vincent Foundation, said she had felt a responsibility to rescue her husband's translator, Nour Al Khal. She talked about the many obstacles she encountered along the way.

"I called the U.S. embassy many times, I approached human rights organizations, politicians and individuals. Nobody was able to help me. I was told Nour wasn't eligible for asylum because she hadn't been working for the U.S. military", Ramaci said.

One of the missions of the Steven Vincent Foundation has set for itself is to provide financial help for the families of local journalists, fixers and translators who get killed while covering the news.

The foundation also supports women journalists in the Islamic world, especially those who advocate women rights in Muslim countries. "If you don't have equal rights for women, you don't have a democracy, she said.