This piece originally appeared in Smoke Signals newspaper.
When the sandstorm hits, I sleep with a water-soaked cloth pulled over my face. It’s the only way to keep from breathing the fine dust that permeates the tiniest cracks in the building.
In the morning, the ground glows with smooth beige powder, as though cloaked in snow. I put on my military-grade helmet and shrapnel-proof vest, climb into the armored car with my co-workers and our bodyguards, zig and zag down city streets. I clear 15 checkpoints–including three pat-downs–during this commute to and through the International Zone of Baghdad.
At last I arrive at the workplace: a cavernous conference room inside the Iraqi parliament building. I fluff my helmet-smooshed hair, pick up my notebook, and smile at the cluster of Iraqis.
“Sabah el-khayr,” I greet them … and I really mean it. Any morning that I have the privilege of working with journalists in places like Iraq is, indeed, a good morning.
Not the same kind of good morning as I enjoy in a kayak on Lake Petit. But, after a two-year hiatus in Big Canoe, it was time to rejoin my colleagues overseas.
So in May and June, I went to Afghanistan and Iraq to work with local journalists.
Optimism and journalism are two words seldom seen as mates. Yet in both countries, my work with these journalists left me hopeful about their future.
June 8-24: Baghdad
My assignment: Teach interviewing skills to Iraqi journalists who cover the parliament. Their assignment: Ask clear, specific, neutral questions from their elected officials–even if it means interrupting them in mid-sentence.
Scary stuff. The interrupting, I mean. Most of the journalists I worked with were still afraid to press ahead in their role, even though they understood its importance.
While they knew in their bones that they have the right and the obligation to question elected officials, the journalists were often silent when faced with a blathering member of parliament. Some of their hesitation was cultural – to not contradict authority or elders–but they also work with a very real fear that being overly aggressive in their reporting will lead to being killed.
Many in the press corps are young and with little formal training in journalism, but also are uncontaminated by Saddam-era ideas. I found Iraqis, like many other journalists I have worked with in the region, keen to learn and quite sophisticated in their understanding of politics. We had many laughs as well as some very impassioned talks about the risks that come with the job.
Judge Zakia Hakki, member of the parliament’s human rights committee, is questioned by Iraqi journalists
Though the reporters were sometimes disdainful of the members of parliament, those we interviewed were knowledgeable about their committee’s issues but were themselves struggling to learn how to do their job. The Legislative Strengthening Program that my work was part of, funded by tax dollars through the U.S. Agency for International Development, aims to build that capacity among members and staff in the Iraqi parliament.
Improving the quality of local coverage is important to the parliament’s ability to serve its twin role of legislation and oversight. Journalists are the eyes and ears of Iraqi citizens, as well as a megaphone amplifying the voices of ordinary people loud enough that elected officials will hear.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities has been cause for both celebration and fear; an upturn in violence is to be expected.
But the longer-term trend is toward unity and rebuilding, rather than sectarian violence. Journalism will be a crucial part of that positive trend.
Kabul: Back to the Future
I was enjoying the last bites of lunch on a sunny patio, catching up on the news about friends. Then an editor stuck his head out of the window of the conference room and yelled down at me: “C’mon, it’s one o’clock!”
I concealed my smile as I scrambled to my feet and headed to the meeting. What a delicious pleasure to be scolded for being late … by an Afghan editor.
Over and over, in the two years we lived in Afghanistan, we taught the importance of timeliness in journalism, of making the deadline, of operating the office efficiently and on a schedule. The Afghans, after 26 years of civil war, were well-attuned to the immediate present, but did not have much practice with preparing for an organized future.
Day by day, one monthly calendar page at a time. I made a point of reminding the staff repeatedly about our workshops and plans well in advance – yet they were usually surprised when the event actually came to pass.
Now they were telling me to be on time. I was thrilled.
I had returned to work again with Pajhwok, the news agency that my husband Tom Willard and I started. Although I’d kept in touch via email, and had seen some of my Afghan colleagues when they visited the US, I had not been to Kabul since 2005.
Some things were much the same, or worse. Kabul, like Baghdad, has its share of wind-whipped dust storms. The construction, demolition, open sewers, and insufficient green space all add to stinging clouds of dust. The concrete barricades and armed guards are numerous and seem to go on for entire blocks. The attitude toward Westerners has clouded considerably. Although the Pajhwok staff calls me “Mom,” outside the safety of the office gate I felt the hostility.
At the time we left Afghanistan, we were unsure whether Pajhwok would last more than a couple of years. News agencies are not easy money-makers, and the prospects for long-term funding were not good after the Iraq war started. We’d had to build the agency nearly from scratch in about four months, and did not know whether the staff was solid enough in the important skills they needed.
We carried on anyway, believing that the education and experience the Afghan staff gained as individuals would continue to benefit the country’s development even if Pajhwok itself did not survive.
The staff persevered after we left. Today Pajhwok’s staff covers the entire country and publishes photos and audio and about 40 news and feature stories a day in three languages. Its clients include international news outlets, embassies, and nongovernmental organizations, as well as all the Afghan radio, TV and newspapers.
Many of the staff members are the same men and women whom we hired and trained in 2004. And remarkably, despite being taunted by rampant corruption and threatened by the guns of warlords, they are still following the principles and ethics of journalism that we taught them.
I came this time to help the staff prepare for coverage of the elections in August, only the second time that Afghan voters will choose a president as well as their provincial council members. The election of 2004 was momentous, but this year’s ballot will be more important in the degree to which it can solidify democratic institutions.
Part of my work was to discuss policy and coverage guidelines with the Pajhwok editors. As we debated how to give fair treatment to the large field of presidential candidates, I was struck by the high level of standards and thought around that table.
Somehow this team had grasped and held firmly to the principles that are so central to democracy: that they must serve ordinary people rather than the powerful, that their mission is to provide quality information so that citizens can make good decisions and hold their leaders accountable.
No sandstorm has obliterated their vision. They get up every morning, still breathing, and clear away the dust. One story at a time.