Alia Amer is an Iraqi journalist who works for the Arab media channel Al-Arabiya. She is well-known for her fluency in Islamic theology and often quotes Muhammad and the Islamic scriptures in her articles, including her works from such taboo subjects as discussing sex with children and teenagers and the return of the Messiah, to more politically charged subjects such as Israel/Palestine relations. She has been heavily criticized for many of her controversial beliefs. We are re-printing this article, I am an Iraqi Journalist, for its advocacy of truth and journalistic integrity. Despite living in and reporting from the center of a war that has destroyed her country and devastated her family, Amer remains true to the integrity of her beliefs.
I am an Iraqi Journalist
29 June 2005
I am an Iraqi journalist. Every day I am exposed to the nightmare the Iraqi people are living through – but also to their fortitude and resilience. This experience makes me even more patriotic. Unlike many self-seeking (and non-Iraqi) Arab journalists – those who are completely oblivious to the damage they are causing – I have no interest in igniting an already catastrophic situation. Freedom of the press is important, but the consequences of bad journalism are ruinous. In present-day Iraq, sensationalism is synonymous with poisoning the entire nation.
I grew up as a member of Iraq’s “war generation” – a child when the 1980 war started with Iran, and a teenager during 1991’s Desert Storm. There was no escape from war and accepting this pushed me into documenting its effects on film. I studied performing arts and film at university, and part of my film-making training is a commitment to seeing and presenting the truth.
I was the fourth in our family to flee Iraq. My younger sister, a doctor, escaped after hiding in the bathroom cubicle of a hospital for nine hours to avoid being forced to torture a conscript who had absconded from the army. The fashion then was to remove the top of the ears and brand the forehead as a mark of “cowardice.” In hiding, she risked execution for treason.
I fled to Jordan soon after. I had my son there and began working for a large Arabic satellite news company in Amman, where my husband worked as a sound engineer. At least twice a month, the journalists and crew would be rounded up by the secret police, detained and questioned. This continued for months before the Jordanian government finally closed down our offices. My husband and I, unemployed and with a baby, needed to support ourselves. After months of applications, I found a job as a producer with al-Arabiya. The choice I had to make then was whether to build my career in Iraq and be separated from my son for months at a time, or struggle along in Jordan with him. I chose Iraq.
I do not know if I would have made the same choice now. The effect of my work on my son has been far worse than the separation from me, to the point that I have to force myself to not think of it. His awareness and morbid interest in death tolls, car bombs and violence in Iraq are my fault. When his father points me out on the television (“Look, there’s mummy!”) I am, more often than not, standing in a war zone, reporting on deaths, kidnappings and explosions. This makes me think too of Iraq’s other children, who cannot be shielded from their everyday reality as much as their parents try.
The price to pay
Just over a week ago, the circumstances of my work were very different, as I chose to be an “embedded” journalist with Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Iraqi prime minister, on his four-day visit to Brussels, London and Washington. Some friends and colleagues discouraged and criticised my decision. “You are compromising your integrity”, they told me; “How will people ever trust what you say? You’ll never be taken seriously again.”
Iraqi journalists are a very special group. They are the only journalists in Iraq who are frequently accused of treason or are asked to make decisions “in the interests of the nation” – as if no other journalistic contingent covering Iraq’s calamitous reality had any such responsibility. But I see my profession as a service to Iraq, especially when there are so many questions that deserve answers.
As part of al-Jaafari’s entourage, I had greater access to information about Iraqi political realities than ever. The paradox – as it may appear – is that the closer to the government I became, the greater the quality of my coverage. None of my information was second-hand. On hearing breaking news, I could immediately confirm or refute reports that would go out to an anxious population. I continued to analyse, question, and criticise in a way that was well-informed and constructive in its intentions. I remained a journalist even in close proximity to power.
As a journalist in Iraq, I am used to accusations from different sides. Iyad Allawi’s government closed the al-Arabiya offices in Baghdad for three months after alleging that we were guilty of “inhumanity” (because we showed footage of dead American soldiers) and condoning violence (because we used words like “resistance”). We also received daily threats from the “other side” who branded us as the government’s “mouthpiece” (because we aired frequent interviews with those in power). In other words, we were guilty of journalism.
We used to joke about those threats, until one day “the other side” followed through, killing seven of my colleagues in a targeted car-bomb attack. It was a huge price to pay for a few exclusives. I was unconscious for four days and am still working hard to regain the use of my right arm and hand.
The hardest decision I have ever had to make is returning to Iraq after that attack. I was even more afraid of leaving my son without a mother. The definition of terror for me is allowing yourself to believe you are God, the judge of who lives and what dies. A true resistance shows its face and directly confronts those in power – it doesn’t lurk in the shadows murdering innocent people. But as a journalist, I can only guess at intentions; for that reason, I can describe the attackers neither as “terrorists” nor as the “resistance,” only as “armed groups” – that is as sure as I can be.
As an Iraqi living in Iraq, living under the cloud of attacks and kidnappings, I do not want to hear only news of bombs and killings, of the growing list of deaths and missing young women. I also want to know what is happening to restore public services, where communities are living a better life than they did under Saddam Hussein, whether the government is aware of and acting on the same problems that prevent me living a normal life. I want to know these things and to report them without fear or favour. The Iraqi people deserve the truth. They need to know that their sacrifices are worth their enormous sufferings.