A journalist not like the others

Interview with Dahr Jamail, an American journalist in Bagdad
Dahr Jamail is an American journalist who is best known as one of the few unembedded journalists to report extensively from Iraq during the Iraq war. Between 2003 and 2005 he spent eight months in Iraq and presented his stories on his website, entitled Dahr Jamail’s Mid-East Dispatches (www.dahrjamailiraq.com) In 2008 he was the recipient of The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism and has won many other international prizes. We were fortunate to make contact with Jamail who kindly took precious time from Baghdad to answer all our questions. So, over to Dahr
Q: First of all, could you tell us a little about your background?
I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. I have a B.A. in Speech Communications from Texas A&M University. I eventually found my way to Alaska, where I lived for nine years, much of which spent working as a mountain guide and rescue ranger on Denali, which brought me great joy. I was there when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and while I had but little journalism experience, decided to go to Iraq in November 2003 to see the occupation myself, and begin reporting on it.
Q: You were a mountain ranger in Alaska before setting off to Iraq? What made you make this tremendous career shift?
My outrage at the corporate media coverage of the build up to the invasion, the invasion itself, and then the occupation. I continue to believe that if it weren’t for the despicable coverage by the media, this war could have been avoided. Rather than working as journalists, most of them instead acted as little more than state stenographers.
As a U.S. citizen, I felt it my responsibility to do something above and beyond writing letters to my elected representatives. I felt it was time to take a risk, and my conscience would not allow me to sit by and do nothing. I believed then, as I do now, that people having access to clear, honest information about the policies of their government is critical, thus, I decided to take the leap.
Q: What were the challenges that you had to face and how did you cope with them?
First it was saving enough money to go to Iraq. I went in cold, with no support, as it was a self-financed trip. Then logistics were a challenge-only via the internet was I able to get in touch with some other journalists in Iraq to learn the best and safest way to get in. In that way, I found someone to give me the information I needed to get in, find an interpreter, where to stay, and then get busy doing my job.
Once I started the trip, it began with an ongoing series of rather serendipitous experiences of meeting the right people at just the right time. However, my first weeks in Iraq were a challenge as I struggled to find anyone to run my pieces. Finally, I got picked up by BBC to do some radio, then New Standard to be their correspondent, and it became apparent I would be able to return to Iraq and continue reporting, next time being paid. From then on, as my work got out there, I started getting picked up by more papers, magazines, and radio programs, and by the end of my second trip to Iraq, I had more work than I could keep up with.
Of course there were security concerns, which was and is a challenge, but I decided that my best security was no security. What I mean by that is that I felt it would draw attention to me if I went around with a security contingent. Thus, by doing what I could to blend in with Iraqis, I felt I was being safer.
Q: You seem to have a disaffecton from the mainstream media? Why?
As I mentioned above, rather than behaving as journalists and asking members of the Bush administration to prove their allegations about WMD’s in Iraq, in the U.S. we instead had a press corps that were lapdogs of the state, cheerleaders for war. To me, that was simultaneously repulsive and sickening. This trend continued into the invasion, and then of course with the occupation.
Let me give you an example. I was in Iraq in January 2004 when I came across the story of a man who was detained by the U.S. military, and held for one month. He was tortured horrifically by the Americans-and I had photographs and video to prove it. They cleared showed the back of his had bashed in, electrical burn marks on the bottoms of his feet and genitals, bruises and lash marks up and down his body. The Americans dropped him off, comatose, in a hospital in Tikrit with a medical report by an Army doctor stating the man had had a heart attack, which was their excuse for why he was comatose.
I sent the story to 150 news outlets across the U.S.-including every major TV, radio, and print publication. Not one, not one foreign editor even replied to the email, which was simply urging them to cover the torture, as it was that widespread. It wasn’t until the end of that April when journalist Seymor Hersh forced 60 minutes to run those pictures, otherwise he would have scooped them.
That’s but one example. The embedded corporate media are useless, beyond furthering the agenda of the state. That they call themselves journalists is laughable.
Q: Have you have also been reporting from other places in the Middle East? What is so special for you with this region?
I covered the Israeli assault on Lebanon two summers ago, I’ve reported from Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. I think it’s so important to cover the Middle East, since this is where most of the oil in the world remains. In a time of dwindling resources, and what is now a multi-polar world as far as geopolitical power games, this is where the main conflicts will continue to happen.
And I think it’s imperative to continue to give voice to the ordinary people here, as they are, as always, those who are paying the highest price.
Q: In your latest article you talk about the generosity, the kindness of the people in Iraq. Do you think that we in the West have a bad perception of the Arabs?
I do-largely thanks to they way Arabs and Arab culture are portrayed in the corporate press. Most folks in the U.S. have never been to the Middle East-and thanks to the horribly skewed and negative portrayal of the people of the region, never will.
Thus, rather than getting to experience this themselves, which would dispel the stereotypes, they stay home and have those stereotypes reinforced. And so it goes. I truly wish more people in the west could come here and experience what I have-if that were so, things would change, radically.
Q: We hear that the security situation in Iraq has improved. Do you share this point of view?
I do not. I’m writing you from Baghdad, where we can say that there is far, far less violence. But that does not, in any way, accurately indicate that security has improved. Entire neighborhoods (300,000 people and upwards) have been walled in by the U.S. military, and access is strictly controlled. I can’t go 5 minutes down a street, either on foot or in a car, without passing police, military, tanks, Humvees, U.S. patrols, or a checkpoint. Helicopters constantly fly overhead. One out of six Iraqis remains displaced from their homes, and over one million have been killed. There is no infrastructure-the generators for my hotel rumble in the background as I type this-as they do 20 hours per day. Unemployment is up over 50 percent. Is this the kind of « security » you would like to bring your family into?
Q: A friend of mine told me that Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries have to pay taxes to the host country? Is this true?
I have not heard of this. However, having spent months covering the refugee crisis in both Jordan and Syria, I can say that Iraqis in those places are exploited, taken advantage of, and are barely surviving whilst attempting to eek out a living, even a marginal existence. And certainly Iraqis in Jordan have been deported back to Iraq simply by trying to earn a living by selling tea without a state permit, etc.
Q: You seem to put the human being in the centre of your writing. Could you comment in relation to the Iraqi people in this ongoing war?
I do this because I believe the ongoing most important story here, and that which is the least covered by the corporate media, is how this catastrophic occupation has effected the average Iraqi. Thus, I put all my energy into giving them voice since they are silenced in the mainstream press. What is happening to doctors, women, children, the elderly, the displaced…the true victims of the U.S. empire project.
Q: You have won many international prices has this changed your life? If yes, in what sense?
Last year I was the co-recipient of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, along with Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer. I could not have been more honored by both the prize, and that I shared it with such an outstanding young journalist. It felt deeply gratifying to have my work acknowledged by being awarded this prestigious prize.