Monday, January 15, 2007

The difficulty of covering Iraq

Amir Taheri makes some important points about the troubles that western journalists have in covering Iraq. They don't know the language and they must rely on interpreters whose own biases they have no way of verifying.
For a Western journalist who speaks no Arabic and has no contacts in the country, there are two options: embed with a U.S. or British military unit, or rely on Iraqi aides. Being embedded means seeing things through a narrow, and necessarily biased, angle. Relying on hired Iraqis means becoming a secondhand dealer in information that one cannot verify.
To illustrate the problems of just hiring someone who speaks the language, he gives this example,
JUST outside Um al-Qasar, a port in south east Iraq, a crowd had gathered around a British armored car with a crew of four. An argument seemed to be heating up through an interpreter.

The interpreter told the Brits that the crowd was angry and wanted U.K. forces out of Iraq. But then a Kuwaiti representative of Amnesty International, accompanied by a journalist friend, approached - and found the crowd to be concerned about something quite different.

The real dispute? The day before, a British armored vehicle had an accident with a local taxi; now the cab's owner, backed by a few friends, was asking the Brits to speed up compensating him. Did these Iraqis want the Brits to leave, as the interpreter pretended? No, they shouted, a thousand times no!

So why did the interpreter inject that idea into the dialogue? Shaken, he tried a number of evasions: Well, had the Brits not been in Iraq, there wouldn't have been an accident in the first place. And, in any case, he knows that most Iraqis don't want foreign troops . . .
Many of the interpreters are former Baathist officials who have a stake in portraying Iraqi hatred of the coalition. Others are just out for a buck and are happy to spin stories if it gets them hired again and again as interpreters. It's often too violent and dangerous to go into some areas so the reporters have to rely on such second-hand reports that they can't verify themselves as they would in the United States.

As Taheri predicts, one day historians will have a more complete picture of what has been going on in Iraq outside of the areas of violence and we will be able to judge how well the media has operated under the limitations of violence and language barriers. And the ability of the media to fairly cover a war as it occurs will be as much in question here as it was in 1898 in the Spanish-American War.