Shoe-Thrower's Release Revives Ethics Dispute

Iraqi journalists still divided over actions of reporter who served prison sentence for insulting Bush.

Shoe-Thrower's Release Revives Ethics Dispute

Iraqi journalists still divided over actions of reporter who served prison sentence for insulting Bush.

Thursday, 8 October, 2009
The release from jail of an Iraqi journalist who flung his shoes at the then United States president George W Bush has provoked a fresh argument among his colleagues over the ethics of their profession.

The debate over Muntadar al-Zaidi’s actions pits the powerful currents of anti-Americanism against the principles of a free press established in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.

Zaidi was released on September 15 to a hero’s welcome in Baghdad, having served nine months of a one-year sentence. He was taken into custody last December, after hurling insults and a pair of shoes at Bush during a press conference.

The actions of the 30-year-old correspondent were captured on TV and catapulted him into the public eye.

Many in the Arab world and beyond saw him as an avenger, giving vent to mass fury at US foreign policy. However, Iraqi journalists at the time were less unanimous in their approval. While many praised him, others accused him of selfishly using their profession as a platform for his unique protest.

Several journalists drew a distinction between how they responded to Zaidi’s actions as citizens of Iraq, and as members of the press. They said they were impressed in the former capacity but deeply embarrassed in the latter. (See Iraqi Journalists Rue Shoe Assault, ICR No. 279, 19-Dec-08)

Nine months on, Zaidi’s release has reignited the debate over professionalism in the press. It has also revived a dispute over whether his actions in December have made it harder for journalists to operate.

Ziad al-Ajeely, the head of the Journalists Freedom Observatory, a media rights watchdog, said government officials had grown increasingly “disrespectful” of journalists. Though critical of Zaidi’s actions, Ajeely felt the sentence against him was unjust. “He should not have been imprisoned in a country that claims it is a democracy. He should have been fined instead,” he said.

Shatha al-Atabi, a reporter with Baghdad-based Radio FM, dismissed Zaidi as “emotional”. She too felt it had become harder for journalists to operate – but said the blame for this did not rest with Zaidi. “Iraqi media has changed not because of Zaidi’s behaviour but because some politicians and officials don’t want the press to develop,” she said. “They didn’t respect journalists in the first place.”

Kareem Abdulhadi, a photographer contracted to the Baghdad municipality, said he supported Zaidi. He dismissed suggestions that his protest had affected the press adversely. “History will immortalise Zaidi for insulting Bush and avenging millions of Iraqis, Arabs and other nationalities,” Abdulhadi said.

Mustafa Khazaal, a correspondent with Beladi TV, also said Zaidi’s “courageous gesture” had not made matters any worse for the press, “Iraqi journalists have been abused since 2003. They are being insulted, killed and kidnapped.”

However, Bashar al-Kafaji, another journalist at Beladi TV, condemned Zaidi’s actions, saying they had encouraged Iraqi officials to behave disrespectfully towards the press. “If he wanted to embarrass the American president, he should have used questions, not his shoes,” he said.

Iraq remains the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, though attacks on the press have fallen since the peak of the sectarian conflict a few years ago. As security has improved, Iraqi journalists increasingly complain of other curbs. A new censorship law sparked noisy protests this year, and alarm was also raised over a planned media bill that critics say fails to guarantee access to sources. (See Deep Disquiet Over Iraq Press Law, ICR No. 288, 29-Apr-09.)

Rahman Gharib, a freelance journalist in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, said security checks for entering press conferences now took longer as a result of Zaidi’s outburst. “The official perception on journalists has changed,” he said.
Gharib said Zaidi had acted unprofessionally but should not have been imprisoned.

On the streets of Sulaimaniyah, 25-year-old Briar Nuri, an accountant, spoke for many here when he said Zaidi had got what he deserved, “It is wrong to humiliate the president of another country. I was happy to see the law of this country take action against Zaidi.”

Sulaimaniyah is in the relatively stable Kurdistan region, where support for the US presence in Iraq remains strong.

Zaidi remains most popular in his home city of Baghdad, until recently a battlefield between insurgents, rival militias and US troops.

Ahmad Abdul Nabi, a van driver in his sixties, said the TV correspondent had “avenged the martyrs and orphans” created by Bush’s army. “He should have been rewarded, not imprisoned. I would kiss him if I saw him,” he said.

Narmeen Hasoon, a Baghdadi woman in her early twenties, said she would gladly marry a man “as daring as Muntadar”.

“He proved to the world that we are free people and cannot live under occupation,” she said.

Mohammad Mahmood, a 10-year-old boy, said his father regarded Zaidi as a hero, “I want to imitate him and be a brave man just like him.”

However, Ali al-Shami Daibis, a mechanic in his twenties, said Zaidi had insulted the Iraqi government by attacking its guest, “I don’t like Bush but I don’t agree with Zaidi. If he was a true patriot, he should have waited until he left the conference.”

Analysts say the tension over Zaidi's actions indicates a moment when Iraqis’ deepening outrage at America’s war struck the bedrock of traditional hospitality.

“Most people in Iraq supported Zaidi and probably wish his shoe had struck Bush in the face and made him bleed,” said Mohammed al-Mihana, a sociologist at Baghdad University. “However, a minority – most of them journalists – believe Zaidi abused Arab standards of chivalry and hospitality.”

Zidan al-Hadithi, a professor of psychology at Baghdad University, suggests this tension may have been internalised by Zaidi. “His personality may be torn between the reporter committed to his ethics, and the Iraqi citizen appalled by the conflict,” he said. “After a tussle between the two, the second aspect won.”

Friends of the journalist interviewed in Baghdad on the eve of his release spoke of an impulsive, argumentative young man, easily moved to anger over the war.

Zaidi is also said to have a fondness for poetry and a preference for smart suits over casual clothing. On press trips, he was unusually punctual by Iraqi standards and infuriated by delays.

A cameraman who worked with him at Baghdadia TV recalls a Zaidi prank, “He liked playing with people’s nerves. He once shook up a can of cola for a colleague, which exploded with gas when he tried to open it.”

At a press conference in Baghdad after his release, Zaidi said he had been tortured in custody – claims the Iraqi government says it will investigate. He added that he had acted out of resentment at hearing Bush “brag about victory”.

“I am not a hero,” he said. “If I abused the press in any way, then I apologise.”

IWPR-trained journalist Ali Kareem produced this report from Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalist Wrya Hama-Tahir also contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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