March 11, 2003
When I first got to Kurdistan about six weeks ago there were about 25 journalists here. That blossomed to several hundred when Turkey let several busloads in for the conference of the Iraqi opposition that took place here a couple of weeks ago. Now I think it’s down to 200 or so, but that’s still a lot for what is basically a small place. We’ve changed the place in big ways and small. For example, I think the furor over the Turkey move I wrote about yesterday wouldn’t have been so large if there weren’t 200 foreign journalists here. And when I first came, the waiters in the hotel would shyly refuse tips. Now they have no such compunctions, and I suspect some of them may be starting to think I’m cheap compared with my colleagues.
There a lot of serious, professional journalists here, several of whom were here (or other parts of Iraq) for the first Gulf War and a few of whom are real experts on the region. There are also a lot of clowns. The worst offenders, naturally, are American TV. A sample of what they’ve done:
Last fall, CNN came to Kurdistan through Syria, which used to be the easiest way to get here. Syria gives you a two week visa, and you have to be in and out of Kurdistan in that time. CNN, however, apparently decided it wanted to stay longer. Syria wants to keep decent relations with Iraq and Iraq didn't like CNN being in Kurdistan, so it asked Syria to kick them out, and Syria did, but CNN refused to go. So Syria threatened to kill the official who had given them permission to cross the border, and that got CNN to move. Then Syria closed the border to all journalists. And, this is according to a local who worked with CNN, president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Massoud Barzani personally appealed to the president of Syria to let CNN – but no one else! – cross the border again. This made the rest of us unloved hacks have to go through a much more difficult procedure to get in through Iran.
Now CNN, and several other American TV networks, have hired government press officials at salaries much higher than their government pay to work exclusively for them. These are the people that everyone has to use to get an interview with government officials, and now you have to hope they have enough time to pity you and help you out while they’re taking a break from carrying ABC’s tripod. I’m told this is somewhat of a standard practice in these situations, but that doesn’t make it any less distasteful (not to mention a violation of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act).
One night a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t get to sleep because of the sound of a truck idling loudly in the street below my window. It was unloading sandbags into the breakfast room of the hotel. The next day, following the trail of sand, I saw that it led to the fourth floor of the nine-floor hotel, the one rented by FOX. They have covered every window with sandbags, and a reliable source tells me they paid $5000 for this. Unless they’re expecting Erbil to become another Sarajevo or Beirut (a scenario very far from likely) it’s not clear what exactly they’re protecting themselves against. And I can’t imagine what the people below must think, having survived several wars in the past decades.
Now FOX has spearheaded an effort to militarize the whole hotel, shutting off the surrounding streets and, they tell us, when the coalition troops come we will have American and British military guards in the hotel. Why doesn’t this make me feel safer? While there are some assorted anti-American elements here, journalists are not at the top of their list. But soldiers sure will be! And now that there will be some here, right smack in the middle of the city rather than on the base far out in the country, the hotel will be a much juicier target. Thanks, FOX!
At least they came by their rooms honestly. Two colleagues who are staying in another hotel had paid in advance for three rooms there – one for each of them and one for their satellite equipment. NBC showed up one day wanting nine rooms all together, and these colleagues happened to be in the way. It didn’t take NBC long to cow the government here, and the government press rep tried to cajole these colleagues into leaving. They refused. (I was there – the press officer chose a bad time to do it, at a dinner that the prime minister had for journalists, interrupting dinner and making a spectacle in front of the dozen other journalists at the table.) The next day, an American knocked on one of their doors and said he was from the White House and needed the room. The colleague believed him and agreed to give it up. Later he saw that the American was in fact part of the NBC crew.
I’m sure this is a small part of what goes on.
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Wow, Josh. I love this! The sandbags in the hotel room. ROFLOL. Why not just paint a big target on the roof?
They won't try to take your room, will they?
Posted by: Chris | Mar 11, 2003 9:59:57 PM
I just finished watching a CNN package from Ben Wedeman, in your neck of the sands. Any amusing anecdotes?
Posted by: Al Matthews | Mar 17, 2003 2:42:44 AM
You're a traitor.
Posted by: Joe | Mar 28, 2003 3:24:46 AM
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