‘For decades almost all governments in the world, including our own, abused and terribly ignored the basic humanity of the Iraqi people. Al-Muajaha aims to provide an open forum for all Iraqis to freely debate current issues, and in so doing educate themselves and the world.’
This is the mission statement of an extraordinary media outlet. Just a week after the war on Iraq ended a group of seven students in Baghdad, working with peace group Voices in the Wilderness, started up Al-Muajaha, Iraq’s only independent newspaper.
‘We are trying to bridge that gap of isolation that opened between Iraq and the whole world under sanctions. We are also trying to make the world understand about Iraq and trying to make the Iraqi people understand what the world means. Because that is what is missing,’ explains Waleed Rabi’a, a reporter with the newspaper.
Iraq is a violent and conflicted place. Young American soldiers with big guns standing on every corner giving the thumbs-up and yelling out things like ‘rock and roll!’; the smashed-up pictures of Saddam everywhere; people driving the wrong way up and down streets; the bombed-out buildings: all these give one the sense of walking through some kind of dreamscape.
While the majority of people are overjoyed to begin life anew without Saddam, they are outraged at the occupation of their country by the US military. There is an increase in violence and detentions, little electricity and huge numbers of people go without water altogether. It is common to hear Iraqis cursing Saddam in the same breath that they curse the Americans. For the people at the bottom of the heap, things are getting much worse than they were even under the sanctions that Iraqi people have suffered for 11 years.
All over Baghdad people are saying that if the situation doesn’t improve, they will fight the Americans. And Al-Muajaha is there, capturing the mood on the streets. Its pages are filled with stories like ‘Baghdad’s forgotten street children’, poetic pieces like ‘Wake up O people of Iraq’, and funny cartoons and jokes about the different places Saddam might be hiding. In short, Al-Muajaha provides a platform where Iraqis can express the many conflicting viewpoints that exist in people’s minds as they struggle to find a new identity in the face of an uncertain future.
We aim to help the world understand Iraq, and to help Iraq understand the world
The young people from the paper began their work in the lobby of the Al Fanar Hotel, which served as an unofficial base camp for the many peace activists who were in Iraq before and during the war. The paper office is now housed in a building rented by Voices in the Wilderness that also serves as dormitories for delegations of activists coming to Iraq. It has become a place for the volunteers at Al-Muajaha to hang out, have meetings and crash when they are working late on a story. After dark, Baghdad turns into a ghost town as people are still afraid to go out due to crime and frequent arrests by American troops. As a result, the house is filled with activity at all hours and is evolving into a sort of community centre where children from the neighbourhood come to roughhouse with the newspaper staff, debates rage, training sessions are conducted by visiting media activists and work goes on until the wee hours as deadlines approach.
Al-Muajaha is published in both Arabic and English to allow the paper to reach both Iraqis and the larger global audience that now has its attention turned towards the country. In April they sent out an email call asking for help from the international media activist community, and began to forge links with the Indymedia movement. At the start of May an Indymedia-hosted email list was set up as people from all over the world started co-ordinating efforts to support them. The idea of an Indymedia Baghdad has thrilled the imaginations of media activists everywhere as there has been a void of information coming from Iraqi people beyond the slanted reports of the Western corporate media. These international supporters got together money and equipment which activists then brought into Iraq. The paper now has its own website with its own unique identity and links to the international Indymedia network.
They have captured the spirit of independent media and already inspired people around the world in the brief span of their existence. As Rabi’a says: ‘We made the first issue with a very small digital camera, one computer, two sofas and a few papers, really with nothing. You can’t say it’s something, it’s nothing. But to see your first issue published in the streets and you worked it out with nothing, it’s a very, very precious thing for us.’