Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Journalists Duck and Dive

With declining international media interest in Iraq, local reporters juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet.
By Uthman al-Mukhtar

Freelance journalist Faisal Ali says the only way to survive in Iraq’s cutthroat media market these days is to duck and dive and keep your editors far apart.

Ali shuttles between Baghdad’s bomb sites and corridors of power with three mobile phones at his side: one for a well-known European newspaper, one for an American newspaper and another for a Saudi news agency. If the lines ever crossed, he could be out of work.

Ali is like many Iraqi journalists who have felt the pinch of declining international media coverage following the withdrawal of United States combat forces in August.

The Baghdad bureaus of many foreign news organisations have either laid off reporters, fixers, translators and editors, or slashed salaries by as much as 30 per cent.

The change has come in sharp contrast to the plethora of work available to journalists in the immediate aftermath to the 2003 US-led invasion.

Ziad al-Ajili, director of the Journalist Freedoms Observatory in Iraq, says the fall of Saddam Hussein led to an overnight explosion of media openings. By his reckoning, thousands of Iraqis found jobs with newly-arrived agencies. Now, however, he sees the opportunities dwindling as international interest shifts to Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Manaf Ali Mohammad has worked for an international news agency for six years. Despite an exclusivity clause in his contract that forbids him to file for any other news media, Mohammad has now accepted another reporting position without notifying his original employer.

“I bought a new phone for the second job, but I still faced a problem sending the same story to both agencies. I used different terminologies to describe the same thing. And I use my real name with the first one and my son’s name with the other,” said Mohammad, who describes his moonlighting as simply self-preservation.

“After six years of working with an international agency in Baghdad, there is talk that the agency might shut down its office. I would find myself on the street looking at wasted years without any benefits. This is why I had to have some kind of Plan B.”

He says he has few qualms about breaching his contract when Iraqi journalists take all the risks. ”Most of the foreign journalists are sitting in their offices in Baghdad’s hotels leaving us to face security threats in return for salaries that don’t even amount to 800 US dollars per month,” he said.

Mansor Fadil is a multimedia journalist who works for two foreign news channels. Neither of his editors knows that he works for a second outlet.

“I usually carry two blank tapes and I shoot the same event from different angles. I have a problem with press conferences, so I hire a cameraman to cover the conference from a different angle. Then I send the two tapes to the two channels,” said Fadil, who has no problem justifying his duplicity.

“I have to take advantage of them as much as possible because they are going to leave without even saying goodbye or thank you. They will leave happy that their mission is ended in Iraq and without caring about us or the dangers we faced as a result of working with them.”

Such stories are commonplace, according to Ismail Jassim, director of the Iraqi Journalists Forum in Anbar province.

“The majority of Iraqi journalists, if not all of them, work for different media organisations at the same time, some for more than three,” he said. “The reason is to get a greater income and from a growing fear that their organisations will lay them off.”

Sarmad al-Tai, editor of Baghdad’s Al-Alam daily newspaper, said he is fully aware that his reporters also hold down jobs with other news outlets and international bureaus.

“I work with an excellent group of professionals, but I can’t afford to give them good salaries that would make them not think of a second job. In fact, I don’t blame the Iraqi journalists; their job is dangerous and they barely make enough to pay their bills,” Tai said.

Ajili, from the Journalist Freedoms Observatory, said that the moonlighting was not only motivated by money.

Some reporters, especially those who work for Iraqi agencies, seek out other news outlets in order to publish controversial reports, he said, adding that it was “a reaction to the tightening restrictions on what can be published”.

“Many journalists work for local newspapers and agencies that are affiliated with religious parties and political figures which don’t permit publication of anything they don’t approve of, even if it was true and backed up by evidence,” Ajili said.

“This is why you find many journalists who refuse to slaughter their story by publishing [a watered-down version]. They would rather throw it in a waste basket than print it [like that]. So they resort to alternative newspapers and international news agencies to publish their stories.”

On a lighter note, the juggling of employers has led to some comical mishaps. Luai al-Ani is a stringer for two prominent American newspapers which both have offices on different floors of a famous Baghdad hotel.

“I once went to file a story and pictures to both papers. I went to one and then to the other.
But when I was leaving [the latter], the elevator doors opened and the newspaper editor from the [former] was there. He turned red and became outraged,” Ani said.

“It wasn’t long before he fired me, but I kept the other job and I am still looking for a second one.”

Uthman al-Mukhtar is an IWPR-trained journalist in Fallujah.

The names of the journalists featured in this article have been changed at their request.

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