Iraq's independent 'Voice'

In a corner of the bottom-floor cafeteria of the AmericanUniversity of Iraq-Sulaimani are two makeshift walls with two couches, a tableand one iMac computer set up between stacks of proofs and old newspaper issues.

It’s headquarters of The Voice — the firstindependent student newspaper in Iraq — a paper with a future teetering muchlike the walls that surround it.

After a year of publication, the budding paper lies in thehands of a new staff and adviser. As the only student-run paper in the school’sthree-year history to take root and publish more than one issue, TheVoice is looking to continue what it started while facingeducational hurdles and a professional media culture that operates completelyopposite of American-style journalism.

Where it started

The Voice is the brainchild of former WashingtonPost reporter Jackie Spinner, who worked at the Post’sBaghdad bureau for two years before beginning her stint at the AmericanUniversity of Iraq.

In January 2010, she joined the staff at AIU-S as thedirector of media relations with the intention to begin an independentnewspaper for the students. She wanted students to have a newspaper basedaround the American style of journalism — where the goals are objectivityand accountability.

In Iraq, professional newspapers are heavily connected topolitical parties and religious culture. From who prints the paper to whatmakes the front page, executive decisions at Iraqi newspapers are theantithesis of objective. Where American papers traditionally hold a watchdogposition, Iraqi papers more often operate as mouthpieces for certain agendas.

Spinner’s intention for The Voice was to stay trueto journalistic values while remaining plausible. There would be no racyheadlines or a weekly sex column in The Voice. Spinner and thepaper’s new editor in chief, Namo Kaftan, both said the purpose of the Voiceis all in the name.

“It’s called the Voice because that’s whatit is meant to be. A voice for students. A voice of the students, too,” Kaftansaid. “We don’t have any political connections. We don’t cover any politicalhappenings. We just want to be something the students continue to look at.”

Located in the northern region of Iraq known as Kurdistan,the American university and The Voice faceregion-specific challenges unparalleled in the collegiate press. The region ofKurdistan maintains a vivid and distinct identity separate from Iraq – thoughit is not a different country.

A people hardly embraced by the rest of Iraq, the Kurdistanregion has created a regional government and largely operates by its owncultural standards established by the Kurds. The American university bringstogether Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. Seeking to be the voice for all students, thepaper has chosen to steer clear of most political coverage.

“The newspaper doesn’t wave a flag, and I think that was ahard concept for many of our students to understand given that they live in anationalistic culture. I was asking them to put aside their national identity,their allegiance in the spirit of pursuing objective journalism,” Spinner said.

“The ethnic tensions and political tensions are raw andfresh and ongoing in Iraq and in the Kurdistan region. It is a very difficultenvironment to be an independent journalist and even more difficult to be astudent journalist learning about those concepts that many American studentshave engrained in them.”

Dan Reimold, a college newspaper adviser at the Universityof Tampa and creator of the blog “College Media Matters,” visited the Voicefor ten days in May 2011.

“I think the most fascinating part was recognizing extremelyquickly that while I felt I was in Iraq, the locals felt they were inKurdistan. They really do see it to be a region apart,” Reimold said. “Therewas a huge amount of patriotism among locals and it makes the university standout because they are trying to be completely open.”

The Voice has developed practicesaround its precarious situation. Kaftan, who was recently named this year’seditor in chief, said the paper is chiefly guided by culture, not law.

“We know what will offend and we know what we will not putin our paper,” Kaftan said. “The culture means everything.”

Without professional role models

The partisan professional papers that students had grownaccustomed to made Spinner’s task of teaching American journalism even morechallenging.

“It is difficult for the students to operate an independentnewspaper in the press environment that exists in Iraq because students want toadvocate,” Spinner said.

She started with basic concepts to show the students theethical standards that many Iraqi papers disregarded. TheVoice uses a printer with no political affiliations. While itaccepts funds from the university to print its issues, it maintains anindependence from any administrative influence, Spinner said.

“It is not a tool of the administration,” Spinner said. “Wewere fortunate that the administration that established the Voiceunderstood the importance of editorial independence.”

The editorial setup for the Voiceechoes that of most of America’s college papers. Page 2 is a designated opinionsection with an editorial written by a team of student editors to establish aviewpoint of the paper as a whole.

Spinner said the team-crafted editorial workflow was“radical” to her students.

“It is hard to get them to understand that it is best forthe newspaper to advocate for a free press, for an open environment, for aplace where all ideas can be exchanged and not just the ones from the rulingparties or the best financed parties,” Spinner said.

The ideals seem to have caught on, though, as Kaftan quicklylisted the paper’s four main goals: accountability, responsibility, gatekeeping and objectivity. Kaftan now believes that Iraqi journalism should beaccountable and independent, and he said that as editor he wants to make surethe Voiceremains that way.

“Iraqi journalism should be first accountable beforeanything else. It has to be that way. That is journalism,” Kaftan said.

Kaftan has heard complaints from students on campus aboutthe paper’s content being repetitive, but he has never heard anyone complainabout any political affiliations.

“We cover campus news, which is small. But we are juststarting and we don’t want to have problems,” Kaftan said.

In observing the paper during his visit, Reimold said thecultural tension between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs — who are outnumbered at theschool — was handled well by the student newspaper.

“There are Arabs who serve on the paper and readers who areArab that criticize the paper. It is interesting to watch them too, becausethey have to battle the idea that they are in the minority,” Reimold said.“They have their own strong feelings and they have to fight louder to be heardand yet they want to work together to create a good newspaper.”

The staff’s work so far has put them in a place no student paperhas ever been before: past the first issue. Kaftan and Reimold both said thatthe school — opened in 2007— has seen three or four attempts at a student-runpaper.

All but the Voice, however, have neverpublished more than one issue. Kaftan said that the other paper’s staffs lostinterest in the publication or the papers were not well received by students.

What sets the Voice apart? Reimold andKaftan had the same answer: Spinner.

A free press pioneer

“No one more than Jackie is responsible for the Voiceexisting,” Reimold said.

Spinner’s love for the Middle East is apparent in heractions. After two years of reporting from the region for the Post,she made her way back to begin the first independent student newspaper.

“We got a really professional journalist when the newspaperwas formed and she kind of put us on the right track,” Kaftan said. “We startedwith the standards of American journalism because of her and know those becauseof her, even though we have never had freedom of the press.”

Spinner said she sees much power in the craft of journalismand what it can do for those in the Middle East.

“It teaches responsibility and accountability, the power ofthe pen, how important it is to be precise with language, to gather a varietyof viewpoints, to learn and to understand,” Spinner said.

“As reporters, we seek to understand more than we seek to beunderstood. Of course that is a hard concept to preach in a country wherepeople have not had a voice, in a country where voices have been oppressed.”

After only nine months working at the university, Spinnerwas awarded a Fulbright to work in Oman for a year.

Her choice to leave struck Kaftan, who was then the webeditor of the paper, hard.

“It was difficult,” he said. “I literally cried.”

Spinner has completed her time in Oman and has accepted ajob offer at Columbia College in Chicago, where she will teach journalism andassist with a hyper-local news outlet for the Arab-American community.

Her short time at the university was enough to instill Americanjournalism in Kaftan, who said that he is both nervous and glad to continuewhat Spinner started. Recently, however, that task has become more difficult.

Kaftan said the entire university was planning to move fromits building in the heart of Suli to the outskirts of the city. He was not surewhether the Voice would have a newsroom at the newbuilding.

Then his phone beeped.

“Oh, Jackie just emailed me,” he said, smiling. “She saidshe heard that we will probably have a newsroom.”

Kaftan said that the small budget for the Voice,which just covers enough for the printing costs, is a difficult hurdle whenattempting to increase interest in working for and reading the paper.

Spinner still helps members of the staff from a distance.She coordinated parts of Kaftan’s first trip to America this summer: A two-weektrip that included his attendance at an Associated Collegiate Press workshop inMinneapolis as well as visits to Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Kaftan was able to visit several newsrooms, including the Postand the New York Times, and to meet with Americanjournalists. He said it was difficult to get his school to fund his tripbecause they did not think it was to learn American journalism, though theyeventually provided funds for his plane tickets.

“It is so much different here. I can’t even explain,really,” Kaftan said as he strolled through the Newseum in downtown Washington,D.C., where he snapped photos of exhibits he found especially helpful.

“I’m going to show these to the staff so they know what weshould be doing,” he said.

Kaftan said that his trip and Spinner’s absence has inspiredhim to see if the university has the funds to pay professional journalists tovisit the university and hold workshops for the newspaper staff.

“Jackie never discouraged you,” he said. “She onlyencourages you to do whatever it takes – even if you do not have the skills forit, you will.”

“I am hoping to train the staff and new students to learnabout journalism and how it can contribute to society.”

Staying on track

With Spinner gone, most of the original staff members notreturning and an entirely new campus, Kaftan has many obstacles to surmount ifhe hopes to avoid the fate of past newspapers at the campus.

“The biggest challenge now for the Voiceis to make certain that the university supports it by hiring an experiencedjournalism educator to oversee it and to teach the students excellent standardsof journalism,” Spinner said.

Currently, university registrar Paul Croft is the facultyadviser for the paper.

Reimold said this staff transition is pivotal to the Voice’ssuccess.

“I worry that the group we have confidence in will be toosmall to keep it going,” Reimold said. “There is not an as passionatejournalism adviser and they are working in an environment that is not entirelyjournalism friendly.”

Kaftan said he would begin interviewing potential volunteersto assign positions at the start of the school year and he hopes to use thebenefits of American-style journalism as the basis for his recruiting.

“I am hoping to train the staff and new students about whatis journalism and how journalism contributes to society. It is to serve yourcommunity, not just to get paid,” Kaftan said.

For Spinner, that comes full-circle.

“College journalism in Iraq is a wonderful way for studentsto learn how empowering it is to give voice to a community, even while keepingyour own personal opinions to yourself,” Spinner said. “You are stronger andmore powerful charged with telling someone’s story than telling your own. Andthe Voice,in telling someone else’s story, is really telling the story of itself, thisnew freedom.”

By Nick Dean, SPLC staff writer