The Freedom of Information Center The Journalism and Freedom of
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By Franklin Foer
The New Republic
Issue date 10.28.02

If the bombs begin falling on Baghdad, a broad swath of the TV-viewing world will quickly become intimate with Jane Arraf, CNN's Iraq correspondent for the past four years. Arraf files her reports from the third-floor landing of a blocky white building a few hundred meters from the Tigris River, with the ancient city's minaret-filled panorama behind her. CNN shares the building with the BBC, Associated Press, Reuters, and the handful of other news organizations that have a permanent presence in Baghdad. But there's an uncomfortable fact about this building to which these tenants don't often call attention: It's the Iraqi Ministry of Information.

About six floors above Arraf's set, not far from her office, sits the ministry's monitoring section, where rows of apparatchiks in headphones listen to recordings of Western broadcasts from Iraq. One TV reporter who glimpsed the operation four years ago describes the listeners transcribing the tapes by hand, with passages critical of the regime written in red. The ministry stores the transcripts in files, which are pulled out and analyzed when journalists apply for visas. Elsewhere in the building, a group of intelligence officials from the Directorate of Anti-Espionage ("M5") and the Directorate of Surveillance ("M10") congregate to devise daily strategies for tracking and obstructing foreign journalists. An ex-Iraqi intelligence official I contacted through the opposition Iraqi National Congress wrote a memo to me describing their tactics: sending women to seduce male reporters in their hotel rooms, planting false information with reporters, destroying reporters' equipment. The former Iraqi intelligence agent wrote, "Every journalist from abroad is considered a spy with a journalist cover. He should be followed and indicated and controlled one way or another."

Like their Soviet-bloc predecessors, the Iraqis have become masters of the Orwellian pantomime--the state-orchestrated anti-American rally, the state-led tours of alleged chemical weapons sites that turn out to be baby milk factories--that promotes their distorted reality. And the Iraqi regime has found an audience for these displays in an unlikely place: the U.S. media. It's not because American reporters have an ideological sympathy for Saddam Hussein; broadcasting his propaganda is simply the only way they can continue to work in Iraq. "There's a quid pro quo for being there," says Peter Arnett, who worked the Iraq beat for CNN for a decade. "You go in and they control what you do. ... So you have no option other than to report the opinion of the government of Iraq." In other words, the Western media's presence in the Ministry of Information describes more than just a physical reality.

In October 1995, ABC News' Sheila MacVicar filed a story from Baghdad on Iraq's presidential referendum. Iraqis generally consider it too risky to speak honestly to a reporter from American television, but MacVicar had come across a rare moment of dissent. As Iraqis lined up to cast their votes, they flashed MacVicar their ration cards, which guarantee them a supply of government-issued food. The point was clear: In exchange for their votes, officials stamped the cards. When MacVicar filed her story, she reported this small current of rebellion and called the forthcoming referendum results--99.96 percent for Saddam--a fiction.

No correspondent had spent more time in Iraq than MacVicar. Since her first trip to Baghdad in 1986, she had regularly shuttled between Baghdad and ABC's London bureau. After her referendum report, however, that shuttling abruptly ended. She stopped receiving responses to her visa requests. More than 18 months passed while she cooled her heels in the InterContinental Hotel in Amman, Jordan, trying to report on Iraq from across the border. As correspondents from other networks received visas, she realized the Iraqis had targeted her for retribution. Desperate to get MacVicar back to Baghdad, ABC sent a fixer, a Jordanian troubleshooter with Iraqi government ties, to work the back channels. After several trips to Baghdad, the fixer reported that MacVicar had been placed on a blacklist, but an arrangement could be made: MacVicar could return if she sent a letter apologizing for "her rude treatment of His Excellency." MacVicar hedged. She wrote that she "apologized if there was offense found." A few months later she was allowed to return to Iraq.

MacVicar is not alone. Visas are the Ministry of Information's primary tools for controlling foreign journalists. Even correspondents for CNN and the BBC, which maintain permanent offices in Baghdad, must continually apply for visas, which typically last only two weeks. And without visas for their own correspondents, the networks have to rely on local Iraqis to keep their offices running--locals who are even more subject to government reprisals than are visiting Americans.

The process of obtaining an Iraqi visa is labyrinthine. First you send the Iraqi consulate in Washington, D.C., a copy of your curriculum vitae and passport. If the Iraqis decide that you are eligible to apply, you fill out a form provided by the consulate that asks about your religion and relationship to the American government. During moments of crisis, such as the current one, four separate committees in Baghdad review the application. And you can't find out their decision for certain by mail or by phone. The only way to get a definitive answer is to travel to the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, or to have your organization's Amman fixer make inquiries for you. NPR's Eric Weiner recounts waiting for weeks at a time at the Amman InterContinental Hotel. Every morning at 10 a.m., he'd walk to what journalists call the "'window of shame'--a sliding metal shutter in front of the [Iraqi] embassy. Invariably, the guy inside would mutter something like, 'No visa today. Come back tomorrow,' and slam the shutter closed." In other words, you can very easily travel halfway around the world only to learn that you won't be going the last 200 miles to Iraq.

Many of the world's authoritarian regimes--North Korea, Myanmar, Iran--use similar methods to control foreign journalists. But in those less newsworthy countries, American media organizations don't play along nearly as much. In Iraq, by contrast, high-ranking network functionaries endlessly court the Ministry of Information so they will be well-positioned when they need to get their reporters in. (Media executives not on news-gathering missions get visas much more easily.) This month--in preparation for the impending war--Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody made the pilgrimage. And nobody has schmoozed the ministry harder than the head of CNN's News Group, Eason Jordan, who has traveled to Baghdad twelve times since the Gulf war. In part these trips consist of network execs setting up meetings with Iraqi officials to try to persuade them that the networks are not sending CIA stooges. And in part they consist of network execs promising the Iraqi regime that they will cover its propaganda. "[The Iraqis] make it clear that you must attend if you hope to get future visas," one cameraman told me. That may explain why earlier this spring Tom Brokaw drove eleven hours through the desert to broadcast live from Baghdad on the eve of Saddam's sixty-fifth birthday--and why dozens of top correspondents covered this week's presidential referendum, even though every journalist considers the event a sham.

The networks make these concessions because the alternative is no access. Jordan says the Iraqis have shut down CNN's Baghdad bureau on at least five occasions since the Gulf war, at times when they deemed CNN reports to be too critical. Currently, three of the network's correspondents-Wolf Blitzer, Richard Roth, and Christiane Amanpour- are banned from obtaining visas. Recently retired New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette, who traveled to Baghdad twice in the late '90s, wasn't allowed back after she wrote articles in 1998 belying Iraqi stories about the horrors of U.N. sanctions. And as ABC's "Primetime Thursday" prepared an interview with Saddam's former mistress, Parisoula Lampsos, which ran last month, an Iraqi official told the network's fixer in Amman that ABC would never again receive visas. (ABC has since been granted permission to enter.) In fact, according to an ABC source, the official intimated that they could pay an even greater price. "Was ABC not concerned with the safety of their people?" he asked.

If you are lucky enough to gain a visa to report in Iraq, you also receive a minder, an English-speaking government shadow who is required by the regime and will cost you at least $100 per day. In theory, the minder is the journalist's ally--a logistician, translator, and source of basic information about Iraqi life. In practice, as Newsweek's Joshua Hammer puts it, "They range from real bastards to boring parrots of the regime." The minder is a well-practiced obstructionist, limiting journalists' travels to a government-approved itinerary. "From the moment you arrive," says Crossette, "freedom of movement is an irrelevant concept."

It's the minder who enforces the Ministry of Information's will. When a TV crew wants to shoot footage, even of one of the many Saddam murals and statues, the reporters must get a letter of permission from the information ministry. "You better have a piece of paper or they won't let you shoot. They'll think that you're a fucking spy. They're paranoid," says Arnett. The letters, which the minders demand, often impose strict restrictions on the crew, occasionally dictating camera angles. Sometimes the minders even impede journalists' work just for the heck of it. One producer described to me the agony of filming a B-roll shot of an arch composed of two oversized swords at a parade ground. Her minder furiously objected. After extensive haggling, the minder forbade her crew from taking this meaningless footage.

According to the ex-Iraqi intelligence officer, even when the minder is out of sight, officials are watching all the time. His six-page memo refers constantly to the journalist as hadef ("target"). He writes, "Put the target under secretive surveillance. This will be used to gather information against him or find him doing something he's not supposed to. Prepare plans to make him fail, or seduce him to do things. ... One effective way is though sexual relations. ... When they feel the target is closing in on sensitive material, create technical problems that will obstruct his path. ... For example, create a car accident. This usually will happen with a taxi driven by intelligence personnel. ... Produce false information, and see what level of ability he has to distinguish between good and bad information."

The American correspondents I spoke with corroborated that they were under constant surveillance. One producer describes making a satellite telephone call from a corner of the Al Rasheed Hotel's garden, far from her minder and any other apparent eavesdroppers. As she left the garden a man approached and told her, "Never do that again." Hammer spoke in French with a friend by satellite phone in his hotel room; the next morning his minder greeted him, "Vous parlez français, aussi?" When one correspondent unplugged a television, a repairman knocked on his door a few minutes later asking to fix the set. "They're obviously watching me in bed," he said. "And I'm pretty sure that they're watching me in the bathroom. I've never wanted to leave a place so badly."

Even when reporters faithfully follow the regime's instructions, the Ministry of Information still torments them. Arnett describes constant harangues from ministry officials, even about colleagues over whom he had no control. They'd complain, "What the hell is Larry King saying? Can't you shut him up?" Other reporters describe fierce tongue-lashings for having crossed prosaic red lines. The Iraqis won't abide references to the "regime" (they prefer "government") or to "Saddam" (they prefer "President Saddam Hussein").

Sometimes the officials go beyond angry lectures. According to a network source, on about four separate occasions in 1996 the Iraqis roused MacVicar from her hotel room at 2 a.m. and drove her to the Ministry of Information, where officials screamed that she was working for the CIA. The French documentary filmmaker Joel Soler told me how his minder took him to a hospital, ostensibly to examine the effects of sanctions, but then called in a nurse with a long needle. "He said, 'Now we'll do a series of blood tests.'" Soler jumped on the table screaming: "I said, 'I'm calling my ambassador.' If I'd been American, forget about it." There's the horror story of The London Observer's Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian-born British journalist. A few months before the Gulf war, the Iraqis tried Bazoft behind closed doors on charges of espionage. They then hung him. As he turned over Bazoft's remains to the British Embassy in Baghdad, Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim told journalists, "Mrs. Thatcher wanted him alive. We gave her the body."

To stay on the right side of the regime, many reporters on the Baghdad beat take the path of least resistance: They mimic the Baath Party line. Lacking other stories, they go along with government-arranged tours--most popularly to the leukemia ward at Saddam Central Children's Hospital, where doctors recount the horrors of sanctions, and to the Martyr's Monument, a Baghdad memorial to 400 women and children accidentally killed by an American missile during the Gulf war. ("They revel in pointing out the pieces of charred flesh on the wall," says Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune.) The Iraqis also load up buses of foreign journalists for tours of alleged weapons sites or street protests. But the demonstrations aren't terribly convincing. One journalist described to me an anti-American demonstration held last April in Baghdad to celebrate Saddam's sixty-fifth birthday. She saw the same high school students pass by several times, simulating an endless stream of angry protesters. When her colleagues turned their cameras on, officials with bullhorns instructed the crowd to increase the volume of their chants. "Everyone knows they're a sham," says the journalist. "But CNN in Atlanta is telling Nic Robertson that he has to file a story. He doesn't have anything else to work with. So he shows the demonstration."

Nobody better exemplifies this go-along-to-get-along reporting strategy than the dean of Western reporters in Baghdad, Arraf. In a segment last month, answering viewer phone calls, Arraf rebutted the charge that Saddam's vanity construction projects have diverted money that could have been used to feed his starving people. Sanctions, she said, have "tied his hands in some respects." Later in the same segment, repeating Saddam's constant refrain, she told viewers, "If there's been anything that's been essentially agreed over the last decade, it's been that the sanctions that are in place, held in place by the U.N. and U.S., haven't been working." (That's a pretty substantial overstatement given that both the United States and the United Nations officially believe sanctions serve a necessary purpose: to keep Saddam from more rapidly rearming.) Arraf even endorsed Saddam's justification for denying U.N. weapons inspectors entry to presidential palaces: "[T]he palaces are ... a symbol here, a symbol [of] sovereignty and a symbol [of] President Saddam Hussein, and they're not too fond of the idea of inspectors just barging in." In that same report Arraf never notes that the United States suspects those same presidential-palace complexes of doubling as weapons factories.

There's nothing unusual about reporters ingratiating themselves to a source. But Arraf's beat sweeteners are a little hard to swallow. Last year she ran a story on the tenth anniversary of the Gulf war that included this nearly congratulatory section on Saddam: "He, too, endures. More than a symbol, a powerful force who has survived three major U.S.-led attacks since the Gulf war, bombing, and plots to depose him. At 63, the president mocks rumors he is ill. Not just standing tall but building up. As soon as the dust settled from the Gulf war, and the bodies were buried, Iraq began rebuilding." In her report reviewing Saddam's past ten years, Arraf included no mention of his butchery that has been documented in Human Rights Watch reports and in dozens of books. From her telling, you'd think he's the Robert Moses of Mesopotamia.

In fact, even Arraf herself seems to know that what she is saying is probably bunk. Last March she published a piece in London's Daily Telegraph (which the Iraqi Ministry of Information apparently missed), in which she outlined the near impossibility of reporting honestly on Saddam's regime. She wrote, "People in the streets are not allowed to talk to television journalists; or rather, the journalists are not allowed to talk to them. 'Why do you want to ask them political questions? They are not qualified to answer,' an official said. ... More than most countries, there is a wide gap in Iraq between what people profess in public for their own safety and what they say in private." Nonetheless, Arraf still frequently includes in her CNN reports, without qualification or caveat, footage of Iraqi people condemning the United States and lauding their leader.

Many of Arraf's colleagues commit the same egregious errors, treating regime-organized demonstrations as if they were genuine expressions of public opinion. NBC's man in Iraq, Ron Allen, filed a report from Saddam's birthday bash last April that noted, "[T]he huge crowds in the streets suggest Saddam still has firm control of his country. Iraqi officials defiantly insist the celebration sends a clear message, especially to the U.S., that the people will stand behind their leader." Introducing a tour of an Iraqi nuclear facility north of Baghdad last month, he said, "The propaganda war really heated up here in Iraq," but then never hinted at the many indications--the fact, for instance, that Iraq isn't allowing inspectors to visit the site--that the tour was a sham. The point, he told viewers, was "to show that, in fact, this site is virtually harmless. ... 'It's a peaceful place,' [the Iraqis] said, 'a place for peaceful research.'" He even refers at length to former weapons-inspector-turned-Saddam-apologist Scott Ritter, without an allusion to Ritter's well-documented change of heart about the Iraqi threat. Unlike Allen and Arraf, even the three Democratic congressmen--Jim McDermott, Mike Thompson, and David Bonior--who recently returned from a peace mission to Baghdad, grasped that a cursory inspection by nonexperts could serve no purpose except to further Saddam's propaganda.

In part, reporters spin these bogus tours into stories because the risks of airing meaningful material are just too high. A TV journalist told me about the time he interviewed a respected Baghdad politico on camera. The journalist was shocked by his subject's candid criticisms of the government. But as the reporter left the interview, his minder told him, "I can't tell you what to do. But if he says that on camera, he'll be in severe trouble--and so will I." Worried about putting lives at risk, the journalists never aired his footage. Even innocuous conversations can result in reprisals. Witt, who traveled to Iraq last spring, says, "Most journalists don't want to put anyone at risk. The potential price is too horrible. Either you get your tongue cut out and then you're executed, or you're just executed. You have your choice."

There are alternatives to mindlessly reciting Baghdad's spin. Instead of desperately trying to keep their Baghdad offices open, the networks could scour Kurdistan and Jordan, where there are many recently arrived Iraqis who can talk freely. "Amman is the place to find out what's really going on in Iraq," says ex-CIA officer Robert Baer, who spent the mid-'90s working in and around Iraq. (To CNN's credit, it has sent reporter Brent Sadler to Kurdistan despite Baghdad's furious objections.) Or they could use their access to depict the harsh realities of life under Saddam--even if it means never returning to Iraq. It's a method used by Soler in his documentary Uncle Saddam, to be aired on Cinemax next month. After spending a month ingratiating himself with Saddam's entourage, Soler convinced the Iraqis to grant him camera time with His Excellency's inner circle. His film shows Saddam to be a lunatic, devoid of morality or humanity. It captures images of Saddam's unique style of fishing-hurling grenades into a pond and then sending aides to retrieve the kill. It documents Saddam's megalomania: Iraq's biggest paper features Saddam in a new pose on the cover each day. "I don't need a relationship with Iraq," he explains of his decision to bare all. "It was my one shot. Every day it was how can I push the limits."

To be sure, after screening his documentary for film festivals and Iraqi opposition groups in the U.S., Soler found red paint splattered on his Los Angeles home, his trash can set on fire, and a death threat in his mailbox. But with the film he smuggled out of Iraq via courier, Soler gives more psychological insight into Saddam than ten years of American TV reportage.

When I asked CNN's Jordan to explain why his network is so devoted to maintaining a perpetual Baghdad presence, he listed two reasons: "First, because it's newsworthy; second, because there's an expectation that if anybody is in Iraq, it will be CNN." His answer reveals the fundamental attitude of most Western media: Access to Baghdad is an end in itself, regardless of the intellectual or moral caliber of the journalism such access produces. An old journalistic aphorism holds "access is a curse." The Iraqi experience proves it can be much worse than that.

Copyright 2003, The New Republic

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