Two Types of Freedom: An Interview with Journalist Saleem Kareem of Radio Free Iraq

by    /  April 17, 2015  / No comments

Journalist Saleem Kareem of Radio Free Iraq. Photo provided by Mr. Kareem.

This is the first of a two-part interview Sampsonia Way conducted with journalists of Radio Free Iraq, the country’s service for Radio Free Europe. Saleem Kareem has been working for Radio Free Iraq since 2007. Before that, he worked for the private sector. A companion interview we conducted with Mr. Kareem’s colleague will run shortly, offering two journalists’ perspectives on the state of the press in Iraq before, during and after the American occupation.

Could you describe the state of the media in Iraq pre-2003? What were the primary media outlets, and who operated them? What kind of impact did Saddam Hussein have on the media environment?

From 1968 to 2004, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was the ruling party in Iraq. There were no other loyal or opposition parties. Saddam Hussein was simultaneously the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, and the General Commander of the Armed Forces. The Ministry of Information, which a minister from the Ba’ath Party led, owned the biggest share of the media. The branches of the media were more or less divided as follows:

– Visible (about two official government channels, and one channel that was managed from the same political views of the Party)

– Audible (approximately three government broadcast radios stations)

– Newspapers (around five government newspapers)

With this said, it is possible to understand how Saddam and his son Uday held the media with an iron fist, as is typical of a dictatorial approach. Every news story was told from the rulers’ own perspectives.

How did Iraq’s media change with the US occupation in 2003?

Media owned by the private sector emerged after 2003. Today in Iraq there are more than 60 satellite channels, 130 radio channels, 150 newspapers, and 300 news websites. The media has started to freely express everything it wants. On the downside, any well-known personality or political party, if angered by what the media says, can retaliate against the press.

What was the nature of the relationship between the US troops and members of the Iraqi media reporting on the occupation? Did this relationship change over the course of the occupation?

In general, the relationship between the US forces and Iraqi journalists was, at least to some extent, cooperative. Sometimes, the Americans organized tours for Iraqi journalists to inform them about the military’s activities, which included assisting in reconstruction, or helping in the transition towards democracy in Iraq. I can say that one of the salient changes was legalizing and continuing this relationship during the years since the US forces came to Iraq.

What pressures did you and your colleagues face from US troops, and did this ever include threats and harassment? Were you or your colleagues banned or censored from reporting on certain stories? If so, what were those stories, and what was the reason for the censorship? Were their any stories you could not cover for political reasons?

I don’t remember if the Americans exerted any type of pressure or imposed restrictions on the journalists during coverage of certain events. However, there were complaints about some of the measures that were taken by the US forces during the coverage of these events. The military used to accompany journalists, and sometimes some of the journalists began to believe that these measures were strict and vaguely explained. The US forces have always reasoned that they took these actions for the journalists’ safety, and maybe they were right.

Members of the US press reporting on the occupation were embedded with the troops, and their reporting was highly biased; for example, US media outlets did not show civilian casualties. How did you get your stories during the occupation, and how did Iraqi reporters circumvent military restrictions?

There were a number of journalists who prepared stories about the incidents that happened between US forces and the civilians in some cases. The stories were written by conducting interviews with the civilians who were witnesses to the incident or part of the incident themselves.

We are in the process of covering stories from two Iraqi journalists who were arrested by US forces and subjected to torture. A 2008 report from Reporters without Borders describes how many forces in Iraq, including the police and US-led coalition forces, targeted Iraqi journalists and forced them to flee the country. Did you ever consider leaving Iraq because the risks associated with reporting there were too great?

I never considered escaping from Iraq because I feared the US forces, but because I was afraid that Jihadi groups, Shiite militias, and some police forces who believed in and collaborated with these militias would target reporters. There were and still are many examples of these groups taking action against journalists.

US troops were responsible for training Iraqi security and police forces before the occupation ended. What training did the US army provide with regard to how the police and security forces should interact with journalists and members of the media?

I don’t know if the U.S. forces trained Iraqi forces on how to deal with the media, but I honestly don’t believe that the Iraqi forces received any effective training regarding this matter. The evidence is the tense relationship between Iraqi security and Iraqi journalists today.

The US officially ended its occupation of Iraq in 2011. Where did the US withdrawal from Iraq leave the country’s journalists?

When the U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Iraqi journalists were supposed to be living in a country ruled by democratic values and a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression. However, the reality in Iraq is that there are still two types of freedom: freedom for journalists to write whatever he or she wants, and the freedom for a person, a party, or a militia to do whatever they like whenever they like to a journalist. There is much evidence of the latter, and it is still ongoing.

What threats or censorship have you faced from the post-occupation government in Iraq? From sectarian groups? How do correspondents in Iraq today navigate this difficult landscape, and continue to report?

For me, and for all journalists in Iraq, the press is very hard work, full of risks and threats. Journalists face everything from judicial prosecutions to threats and direct attacks. I can say that whenever a journalist prepare a news report that concerns a government entity, a party, a militia, or any personality the diplomatic field, he or she must be very careful and conscious to the highest extent, even if the journalist has the all the facts and evidence which proves him/her right.

In the next ten years what do you realistically hope will change in Iraq, particularly in terms of press freedom?

Given everything that is happening, I cannot be optimistic that a big positive change will happen with regard to freedom of the press in Iraq during the next ten years.

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