New America Media, Commentary, John Chua,
Posted: Jun 24, 2011
Editor’s Note: While Iraq bleeds, Western media have ignored heightened violence. And Iraqi bloggers—in English and Arabic--are increasingly important news sources.
When thousands in Sulaymaniyah, the second biggest city in the Kurdish region of Iraq, rose up in protests daily for two months this year, American and European media gave the movement and its results only minimal coverage. This was despite security forces having shot numerous protestors, injuring hundreds and killing at least 10.
Iraqbodycount.org reports an average of 11 people are still being killed each day by guns or bombs so far this year. But bombings and shootings in Iraq, especially small-scale daily killings, simply aren’t compelling news anymore in the West.
The grassroots political awakening creating seismic shocks across the Middle East and North Africa has reached Iraqi’s streets and blogsphere, as well. But when it comes to Iraq making headlines, a level of attention fatigue has long hit the Western press.
Iraq Bleeds, Western Media Yawn
Many Western news bureaus, such as the London Daily Telegraph and ABC News in the United States, have either closed or downsized their Iraq offices. To truly know what’s happening in Iraq today, especially at the grassroots level, Western nations need to listen to activists, bloggers, citizen journalists and local reporters, who are telling the world about the continuing violence and political developments.
In 2009, I created Wahda.net with the Iraqi nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tolerancy International. We wanted to encourage Iraqis to document and comment about their lives and promote wider acceptance of citizen journalism in Iraq. The website is primarily funded by IREX, an NGO based in D.C.
The first bloggers in Iraq actually emerged immediately after the fall of Saddam’s regime. Such blogs as Salam Pax’s “Where is Raed?” and “Baghdad Burning,” which document the horrors of the war, were read globally. Their blog entries were even collected and published as books in the West.
But this first wave was written primarily in English. Those accounts catered to an international audience and a select group of Iraqis. A survey published in 2009 showed that 77 percent of Iraqi bloggers were still writing primarily in English, with only about one in eight writing exclusively in Arabic.
Blogs in Arabic
The paucity of Arabic blogs in Iraq motivated us to launch Wahda in 2009. Since then a new wave of online activity has emerged, not just documenting and organizing protests or reporting on grievances, but also blogging about arts, culture and other specific interests.
There’s even a site called Iraqblogcountexp.blogspot.com that catalogs the growing diversity of bloggers. Although many are still blogging in English, a growing number like Iraqistreets.com (by young bloggers in Baghdad) and Ara-ashjian.blogspot.com (about Armenian-Iraqi issues) are also using Arabic. Meanwhile, Wahda remains committed to encouraging people to communicate across sectarian divides and the best way to do so is with the language most Iraqis use—Arabic.
Attracting commentators from all over the country, Wahda is a central site for Iraqis to congregate online. Many of them have their ear to the ground. For example, it was a citizen journalist on Wahda.net who reported recently that the Kurdish Regional Government finally agreed to negotiate with the protestors, a news development largely ignored in the West.
Wahda gets over 18,000 visitors a month, a high figure considering only five percent of Iraqis have Internet at home. Even local mainstream media have taken notice of citizen journalism on Wahda and other sites. This is the general trend in the region.
In the context of the Arab media, news outlets, such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya , are increasingly turning to citizen reporting, especially in places like Syria or Yemen where foreign reporters are banned or face restrictions.
Significant Inroads—But Dangerous
One proof that bloggers are making significant inroads in restaurants, government offices and living rooms is that not everyone is happy with the freewheeling debates and reports online.
Actually, Wahda's office in Kurdistan has received various death threats by phone recently. Iraq is still one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists and bloggers. Through the grapevine, we’ve been told that some of these phone threats likely come from government officials, who are alarmed by open discussions about corruption, political arrests and other misconducts.
We learned in our citizen-journalism workshops in Baghdad and Erbil last year that although Iraqis are aware of the revolutionary potential of the Internet and are eager to engage with it, Iraq lacks adequate phone or cable lines and reliable cheap Internet access.
But there might be solutions to overcome these limitations, for example, using basic cell phones to receive news updates by text, as well as uploading photos and texts to the website. For instance, Wahda just launched a contest for the best uploaded photo.
Such solutions can help bring key information from the Internet as text messages into the palms of just about every Iraqi, since the basic cell phone is ubiquitous there. When Internet-enabled smartphones become widespread, Iraqis will already be primed for citizen journalism.
Even if they have to rely on Google Translate, policy analysts, officials or anyone interested in what’s truly happening in Iraq, should supplement what they read in Western media reports by scanning online discussions to get a better view of local sentiments and a preview of upcoming political developments.
John Chua is an associate professor of communications at Richmond, the American International University in London.