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Occupational Hazards

Houston-born journalist Dahr Jamail comes to Santa Cruz to talk about yet another casualty of the Iraqi occupation--truth in the media

By Peter Koht

Dahr Jamail has a simple take on the media coverage of the war in Iraq. "Americans who rely solely on mainstream media outlets for reporting on Iraq are not getting the truth."

While America has always had a tradition of a free and slightly irascible press, the last few years have seen a rise in questionable journalistic practices. Whether submitting their questions in advance of Presidential press conferences, airing government-created video news releases, or taking payment from agencies to hawk policy positions, the mainstream media has lost much of the credibility it used to wield. As a result, Americans have taken to procuring their news from the Internet, foreign papers, satellite news services and domestic independent media projects. A leading voice in this new media paradigm, Dahr Jamail traveled to Baghdad in order to report on the biggest story of this young century--the continuing occupation of Iraq.

Perhaps the most disturbing content to his dispatches is his assessment of US control over the country. "The only parts of Baghdad that US forces can say that they have control over are their own bases. Even the Green Zone gets bombed and mortared very frequently. During my last trip, it was getting mortared every day."

While most journalists in the country work in and around the Green Zone, this tale is not being relayed to viewers at home. This gap between reality and television news is due mainly to the constraints the Defense Department places around information collection. Unfortunately, the vast majority of reporters in Iraq are not actively covering a beat.

According to Jamail, most embedded reporters "don't leave their hotels, unless they are going to a military press conference within the Green Zone. They're in a position where they're almost completely reliant on the military for their information. As far as what they're getting from Iraqi sources . . . it's next to nothing if any at all."

For his part, Jamail has constructed the majority of his articles, reports and blog entries about the conflict by interacting with the people most directly affected by the occupation: Baghdadis. As primary as these eyewitness accounts are, they're not easy to come by. For starters, Jamail has to hide his nationality and occupation from most people he sees each day.

"I definitely hide the fact that I am an American. I grow a beard. I do my best to fit in and don't speak English in public. I go around in my translator's beat-up car, we leave the hotel at different times each day, we take different routes on the road and make sure that we aren't being followed."

In addition to the threat of being embroiled in street violence, targeted by criminal gangs for kidnapping or chosen for outright execution by Iraqi resisters, Jamail also feels that he is under threat of attack from US forces.

"I am afraid of reprisals. There have been twelve independent reporters killed during the occupation and sixty journalists killed so far in a little over two years. In contrast, during the Vietnam War there were 142 killed during the duration of the entire conflict."

There have been a number of high profile cases involving the accidental deaths of reporters covering the war. The Palestine Hotel, which was the widely recognized home of the western press, was shelled during the initial invasion. Al Jazeera's bureau in Fallujah was bombed. Most recently, Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist, was severely injured on her way out of the country.

Regardless of these grave threats to his safety, Jamail has taken it upon himself to provide a new perspective on the war. His dedication to this goal has even seen him covering the second siege of Fallujah. When asked about his perception of the battle versus that of his colleagues, Jamail lets his disappointment show.

"They are not showing the fact that this was a massacre. The Iraqi Red Crescent is estimating over three thousand people were killed in the last assault. At least two thirds of the victims were civilians. The siege hasn't come to an end."

Though painful, these types of stories need to be told in order for a truer debate to emerge about the continuing occupation of Iraq. With no clear objectives in sight and no timetable for withdrawal from the chaos, Americans, regardless of their political affiliations, are in desperate need of information about the conflict. It's the only way that we as a nation might be able to find a way out.

Dahr Jamail is at the Veteran's Hall, 7 PM, Saturday, April 9. $5 - 10 donation (no one turned away for lack of funds). www.vetshall.org/events.htm

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From the April 6-13, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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