Iraqi Journalists Rue Shoe Assault

Despite some initial awe, press corps mostly dismayed by TV correspondent who flung shoe at US president.

Iraqi Journalists Rue Shoe Assault

Despite some initial awe, press corps mostly dismayed by TV correspondent who flung shoe at US president.

The man who flung his shoes at George Bush has irritated many of his fellow journalists – even as he is applauded on the streets of Baghdad.

Several Iraqis working in the press have told IWPR they fear the actions of TV correspondent Muntadar al-Zaidi will make their jobs harder.

Many acknowledge the symbolic power of his gesture and some even admire it. But they also dismiss Zaidi as an attention-seeker whose conduct has brought their profession into disrepute.

The correspondent for Cairo-based Baghdadia TV is currently in detention, facing trial for his televised outburst at a press conference for the visiting American president on December 14.

Zaidi interrupted a speech by Bush, pelting him with insults and a pair of shoes in what he said was a "farewell kiss" from the widows and orphans of Iraq.

The sight of the American leader ducking to avoid flying footwear delighted many who blame the US president for the bloodshed that followed his country's invasion of Iraq in 2003.

At a rally in Baghdad on December 16, thousands hailed Zaidi as a national hero and demanded his release from custody. The following day, the Iraqi parliament was suspended after members provoked uproar by demanding a discussion on Zaidi's fate.

As for his shoes – they have become the sought-after symbols of Arab anger at American policy, the subject of a bidding war attracting offers of tens of thousands of dollars from across the region.

While Iraqi Arabs on the street have championed Zaidi, his colleagues in the press are less impressed.

Many were scathing about him, saying he was not a true journalist. They accused Zaidi of using the profession as a platform for a personal protest.

Some admitted to a conflict in their professional and personal reactions to the incident. They said they welcomed Zaidi’s gesture as Iraqis, but it made them feel uncomfortable as journalists.

Omar Hammadi, a reporter for Radio Sawa, said he felt Zaidi’s actions were “courageous” but undesirable.

“Professionally, it is wrong,” he said. “Shoes have never been a tool for journalistic work. He could have written a report on the conference – it would have been more effective.”

Kawthar Muhammad, a reporter for the Aswat al-Iraq news agency, said she “welcomed Zaidi’s attitude – it reflects the opinion of many Iraqis who suffered from the occupation”.

But, she added, his actions were wrong in professional terms, “He has stained the reputation of Iraqi journalists and made them appear biased.”

Muayyad al-Kinani, also a reporter for the news agency, was more critical, saying that despite the excesses committed by the US in Iraq, “Zaidi’s actions are not justified”.

The shoe protest, he said, had harmed the image of Iraqis in the world, making them seem an “uncivilised, undisciplined mob”.

Majida Salman, a freelance reporter working for several Iraqi newspapers, said the incident had served as a catharsis for Iraqi and Arab rage.

“Zaidi’s act was not journalistic but it was in its own way eloquent and unique,” she said.

However, she said its long-term effect was detrimental, as it had deflected the debate away from more important matters – namely the controversial security pact between the US and Iraq, signed by Bush during his visit.

“Zaidi’s shoes are a trifle compared to the advantages and disadvantages of the security accord,” she said.

Some interviewees contacted by IWPR asked for their names to be withheld in this article – a sign of the dangerous passions aroused by Zaidi’s case.

Journalists who attended the press conference with Bush in Baghdad said they were later threatened by security officers who overheard them praising Zaidi. Since the correspondent’s arrest, armed Shia groups in Baghdad have organised rallies in his support.

Several journalists said they feared fresh restrictions would be introduced on press conferences after the latest incident. They said the media had so far enjoyed better access to Americans than to Iraqi leaders.

According to a Baghdad-based reporter who did not wish to be named, US press conferences are well organised and more frequent because the Americans "have better technology and have faith in their security".

On the other hand, he said, Iraqi politicians tend to be too paranoid about their own safety to hold regular press conferences. He said journalists tended to avoid such events anyway, because they were subjected to humiliating searches by guards who did not have scanning equipment.

According to Ghassan Mutar, a presenter with Radio al-Nas, Zaidi’s actions would further erode trust between politicians and the press.

“In the coming period, officials will be more cautious in their dealings with journalists,” he said.

Journalists joke wryly of a new Iraqi law, decreeing that future press conferences only be held inside mosques – the only way to ensure all participants remove their shoes without protest.

Zaidi’s case has sparked concern over journalism’s image and its access to authority. However, fears for press freedom have not been invoked in the context of reports that Zaidi was mistreated in detention.

Journalists’ unions in Iraq and rights groups have played a balancing act, calling for Zaidi to be treated leniently while simultaneously distancing themselves from him.

“It is bad that Zaidi has been beaten violently,” said Zaid al-Ajeely, the head of the Journalists’ Freedom Observatory in Baghdad.

But, he says, “since he has acted as a citizen and not as a journalist with President Bush, he should expect to be treated as a citizen and not as a journalist”.

“Yet I hope he won’t be sentenced [to jail] – or at least not for a long time,” he said.

The head of the Iraqi journalists’ union, Mouyyad al-Lami, said Zaidi’s behaviour had been “strange and unprofessional”, but asked that he be treated with compassion.

Only Zaidi’s employers at Baghdadia TV – as well as some of his supporters in the Arab world – have tried to portray his detention as an assault on free speech.

A commentator from Baghdad, Faleh Hasan, said Zaidi’s actions revealed “a fundamental misunderstanding of press freedom”.

He said his gesture will appear particularly ironic for an Iraqi audience, "In Saddam's era, no one dared even to ask questions at a press conference. No one back then would have imagined one day seeing an Iraqi reporter throwing shoes at the president of the most powerful country in the world."
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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