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

Young Journalists Under Pressure

Children are criticised by adults and school officials for taking up a “disreputable” profession.
By Zhila Adnan

Shazeer Muhammed, 13, began her career as a journalist with an article in a Sulaimaniyah newspaper in which the students she interviewed criticised the local education system.

As a reward for her fledgling effort at free expression, Shazeer has been threatened with dismissal from school, vilified by her teachers and the school administration, and grounded by her father.

She is one of about 30 children who are being secretly trained so they can speak for themselves about the problems they face. Their trainer does not want his name used because he is seen by parents and teachers as a negative influence on the children.

He began the training after writing a story in 2002 about the situation of children.

The children he wrote about criticised that story, though, saying he failed to mention some issues of concern and generally did not accurately portray their lives.

He then suggested they write about their own lives and problems.

So they did. They wrote about child abuse in the home, violence against children in the schools, and of an antiquated and ineffective educational system.

So far about 17 articles have been placed in local publications written by children from 6 to 14 years of age. They generally receive about 10,500 Iraqi dinars, or seven US dollars, per story.

Many of the child writers are drop outs – forced to leave school to work.

The children and their journalism teacher meet casually in the market place for short sessions, and they agree on a different location for the next meeting.

Ara Ali, 18, is another child writer who quit school after sixth grade and now works as a shoe shiner alongside many other children in the central square of Sulaimaniyah.

"Through my writing I want to speak about the very tragic life of Kurdish children," Ali told IWPR.

His life is "full of bitterness" which helps him understand the situation of his working colleagues.

Jutyar Bakhtyar, 13, is a carpenter’s apprentice who works near Ara. In the beginning, Jutyar told his family of his desire to write for newspapers about children.

But his father told him it is "better to earn money than be involved in journalistic work".

So Bakhtyar writes secretly, without his family's knowledge.

Other children have met resistance from adults who find their writing inappropriate.

"They think we should only listen and not express opinions," said writer Pakhshan Muhammed, 13.

Many of the children have to find excuses to leave their homes or sneak out to see their journalism teacher.

One child said his family does not believe he has earned money from writing.

The reporters also said they do not get cooperation from adult sources and interviewees, who do not want to answer their questions.

As Pakhshan Muhammed said, "They see it as beneath them to answer us as we are children."

Shazeer’s journalism has got her into trouble with the education authorities.

Her article "The outdated school system" was published on February 14 in Hawal, an independent weekly newspaper, causing a storm at her school.

Shazeer quoted another student who said that if they did not study hard, the teachers would beat them with a hose, even though physical punishment has been banned in Sulaimaniyah schools.

In her article, Shazeer asked if "we, the oppressed and voiceless, can have any potential” in this environment.

Other students interviewed for Shazeer's article questioned the relevancy of an antiquated school curriculum.

One complained that they had to study too much history of al-Quds, or Jerusalem, and the Arabs but too little of the history of Kurdish cities.

Although Shazeer was honoured as one of her school’s top pupils just weeks before the article was published, she suddenly found herself disparaged by teachers and administrators.

She was accused of writing "dirty words" on school walls – a charge she denied.

"I would never say dirty words against my teachers," said Shazeer. "They wanted to dismiss me from the school because of the journalism, but when they could not, they tried a different approach against me."

Teachers also accused her of "behaving like a boy and falling in love with the girls".

The school even brought in a doctor to examine her but Shazeer ran away and hid.

"The child has lost her way," said the principle of Shazeer's school, who did not want to be named. "She deviated from the right path and [made] a big mistake. She is opposing the administration of her own school."

The school first threatened to dismiss the schoolgirl journalist then decided to transfer her elsewhere for next year.

Hawal newspaper contacted the city education directorate, which agreed a deal with the school not to dismiss Shazeer and to wait until the beginning of the new academic year before moving her to another school.

Her father defends Shazeer.

"I trust my daughter," he told IWPR. "I have not seen anything bad from her." He grounded the girl from all activities except school itself to "stop the rumours against her".

Meanwhile, Shazeer has written a second piece but she is not going to publish it until her final grades are posted. That will prevent the school administration from taking revenge by failing Shazeer on her exam.

"We should not give up," said Shazeer. "We should speak the truth about children's life though we may be challenged."

Zhila Adnan is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.