Free speech behind armoured doors in Iraq

View of the Tigris river from the Palestine hotel in Baghdad.

By Bram Vermeulen in Baghdad

A TV station's chief editor refuses to give up even after 140 of his fellow journalists have been killed since the US invasion. The last in a five-part series from Baghdad.

A steel door opened on one of the 18 floors of the Palestine Hotel. Behind it was another. Then a guard with a friendly smile and a machine gun. He welcomed the guest to his boss' room. This is where Fallah al-Dahabi, the Iraqi editor-in-chief of Alhurra TV, has been holed up for the past three years.

He has decorated the walls with pictures of his TV appearances, he purchased a microwave and a fitness machine, he has a barbecue on the balcony and a flat-screen television no other guest at the hotel has. But it is still a hotel room, a refuge with room service. Home is somewhere else.


This chief editor and his station were supposed to become the face of freedom and democracy in the Arab world after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Alhurra, 'the Free One', had to become a station where everything could be said, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without commercial interruptions. The US government set it up in 2004 and has since invested 500 million dollars of taxpayers' money. It hoped to create the Arab equivalent of Radio Free Europe, the anti-communist station that broadcast information across the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. But Alhurra has proved no match for giants like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Less than 2 percent of viewers watch it occasionally. Most deem it too pro-Western, too biased and unreliable. In Iraq, the channel and its chief editor have become targets for blind hatred.

Attempts on his life

"The first time I was almost kidnapped was in 2005," said Al-Dahabi. "There was no one on the street. The taxi driver stopped all of a sudden and put a gun to my face. He said: 'You are not journalists. You are collaborators, instruments of the occupation forces.' He was very young, in his twenties, a boy from the countryside. So I spoke to him like a father, I raised my voice. I told him he had no right to address me like that, that he had to show some respect. This frightened him and he lowered the gun. I got out at the next police checkpoint."

He avoided a second attempt at abduction through sheer luck. The moment he left the hotel, he received a text-message telling him to go back inside because an armed gang was waiting for him on the street.

Not long thereafter, a car tried to run him over when he was standing in front of a camera at Fardous square, where a US tank had toppled Saddam Hussein's statue in 2003. "I jumped out of its way just in time," Al-Dahabi recalled. "The car hit the curb and drove off. I got up and finished my live interview."

Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq has become the deadliest country in the world for journalists. At least 140 reporters have been killed in combat or by the dozens of militias and extremist groups here. Since the attempts on his life, Alhurra's chief editor shuttles back and forth between his room and the station’s studio in the basement of the hotel. This is what his life has become.

Threatened to cut funding

His 12-year-old son, Youssef, comes to see him every two months. For two years, his mother only saw him on television, until he decided to visit her on the spur of the moment four months ago. "I had had too much to drink," said Al-Dahabi. "And I asked the police to take me home. It was crazy, but I couldn't take it anymore."

He argued that Alhurra is one of few media that are really objective in their reporting from this besieged city. "All the others are being bribed by political parties." He pointed to his phone, which he had put on silent mode for this interview. The screen kept lighting up. "All parties that want something from me. But I won't yield."

Viewers beg to differ. They find Alhurra too boring and switch to channels financed by religious groups. "Alhurra operates the American way," said Hadi Djelomarai of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedom Observatory. "But viewers have become more comfortable with large news networks like Al-Jazeera or religious channels."

At the same time, Alhurra is also stepping on the toes of its US investor. In 2006, the station reported on a conference that featured Holocaust deniers in Iran, and gave an hour of airtime to the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah. The US Congress immediately threatened to cut its funding.

Writing history

Freedom of the press is one of the foundations of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, but parliament has yet to ratify the laws that guarantee this freedom. In the last two years, no fewer than 200 journalists were taken to court for publishing unwelcome news. A special committee recently introduced guidelines for journalists which the Committee to Protect Journalists labelled "authoritarian".

Alhurra's chief knows this, yet he remains confident. "The press has become a force to be reckoned with in this country. Otherwise politicians wouldn't solicit my favours. The dangers we are living with today are nothing compared to the days of Saddam. Back then, I once threw a shoe at the screen when he appeared on TV yet again. My son witnessed this and weeks later, when he was visiting the hospital, he saw the president on TV and did the same. The dormitory went silent. Everybody realised my family was in danger. I mean: I couldn't even talk about Saddam with my wife."

Many of his Iraqi colleagues have moved abroad over the past years. His best friend, who lights the barbecue on his balcony every Sunday, will emigrate to the US next month, hoping for a better life for his children. But Al-Dahabi will stay in his self-imposed isolation. "Was it all worth it? No doubt about it. As long as my son can say: my father wrote the history of this country."

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