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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

February 26, 2004
MEDIA REVOLUTIONARIES: Above left, an Al-Mujaha staff member holds a copy of one of the first print issues. At right, the newspaper's founder, Majid Jarrar. Article by Matt Elliott and Eric J Herboth.
---

At the age of 17, Majid Jarrar has a lot more on his mind than most people his age. Living in Iraq since 1991, he's grown accustomed to things Westerners only see in small dosages on TV: explosions and murders on a daily basis. Jarrar is living in conditions that most of us can only imagine. And through all this, he and his friends-turned-coworkers have, in some respects, managed to make history.

"We aren't a part of history yet. We won't be until Al-Muajaha gets well-known nationwide," said Jarrar, humble over what is nothing short of remarkable.

Al-Muajaha, or "The Iraqi Witness," is Iraq's first independent newspaper, headquartered in Baghdad and distributed in nine governorates (provinces) in the middle and south of Iraq. Jarrar, with the help of his aforementioned colleagues, started to toy with the idea of an educational project, to give the people of Iraq an awareness of what is going on around them. What that idea eventually became was Al-Muajaha, a newspaper providing a podium for the Iraqi people to have their say without interference from the Iraqi government or, more importantly, the American occupation.

"We took it serious from the start," said Jarrar. "Daily from 8:00am till 9:00pm, continuously making reports and investigating what needed to be investigated, we soon started to accept anyone who was willing to work voluntarily as we did."

The first issue of Al-Muajaha came together a week after George Bush made the now infamous blunder of declaring "the end of major combat" in Iraq. With little to no journalism experience amongst the group, the publishers of Al-Muajaha were able to do something that more than 120 newspapers in the area (which are all commercially owned and/or state-run) could not: illustrate the confusion that is still running rampant throughout the streets of Iraq.

Jarrar is amazed by the overwhelming support the local people of Iraq have shown towards Al-Muajaha, and although not too keen on the idea, has even received offers from other newspapers to start a joint venture. "We always decline when newspapers offer us something," explains Jarrar. " Most of them represent a certain idea of a certain political party, and we don't want that in Al-Muajaha."

"It's quite amazing, something that makes us feel proud," says Jarrar of the newspaper, which is circulated to a small, but growing readership. " We're trying to increase our readership by visiting parties and political movements and telling whoever will listen about the Al-Muajaha project."



Above and below: Scenes from the office of Al-Mujaha.



To date, there have been six issues of Al-Muajaha printed, four of which can be read on the newspaper's website. Unfortunately, the newspaper, which is published both in English and Arabic, stopped publishing in September of 2003, due to financial problems, one of the biggest hurdles to an independent publication anywhere, especially in a war-ravaged nation. The good news is that publication is set to resume this month. "There were some money problems, but we're all back to work now and we hope to publish an issue [soon]," said Jarrar.

When asked what keeps him inspired to continue with the paper, Jarrar replied:

"Well, nothing, except the daily murders, the continuous explosions, the hatred in young men's hearts, the despair in old men's eyes, the cries of martyr's mothers, the unfair treatment by US soldiers and the stupid headlines I see, after all, on TV channels."

It's obvious that, for whatever reason, most of what happens in Iraq isn't broadcast on news channels or printed in newspapers. The information we do receive is widely argued to be a candy-coated deviation from the truth. "Robberies, kidnapping and ransoms, murders, endless political speeches, checkpoint after checkpoint, car accidents, care-free policemen - those are just a few of the things I think CNN forgets to report each day," said Jarrar.

While realistic portrayals of the events in Iraq or even the American casualties seem to be almost voluntarily forgone in the American media (just this week television stations across the US refused to air the Nightline special listing the names of American casualties), Al-Muajaha is fighting to disseminate accurate information in the most oppressive of environments. The media situation in Iraq is one drastically different than the one promised by the invading American government.

The current insurgency in Iraq began, in large part, because Al-Hawza, the newspaper of the Shiite cleric and insurgency leader Moqtada al-Sadr, was forcibly shut down by the US military. Regardless of what the newspaper was printing, the American-led coalition in Iraq is making it clear that Freedom of Speech is not one of the benefits of the "liberation" of Iraq. "Sadr's newspaper, Al-Hawza, was shut down because they wrote an editorial about how Bremer is following Saddam's policies in making [many] decisions," elaborated Jarrar, adding that Sadr's accusations were "absolutely correct, for many reasons".

The silencing of the Al-Hawza newspaper was not an isolated incident, to which Jarrar can attest.

"Yes, Al-Muajaha has been threatened twice by US forces to be shut down. I was invited [to go] in person to Mr. Paul Bremer's office, after I published an article about US soldiers beating civilians in a gas station, documented with pictures. I was accused of 'inflaming the passions' against the Coalition forces. I was held in a US detention center for 6 hours, and I do not know why they let me out, actually."

In addition to overt censorship by the Americans, the publication of an independent newspaper has also become extremely difficult in the face of escalating violence in the month of April. When asked how things had changed, Jarrar replied "Much, actually. In extreme situations, the neutral [position] usual drowns with the flow, so we had to specify our accurate point of view for people, and it's really difficult. One could be either shot because he is a betrayer [of the Iraqi resistance], or get arrested and his ass beaten off [by coalition troops] because he is 'inflaming passions'."

The violence has changed Jarrar and his paper, but it has not stopped or deflected their mission. "We are more aware now of ourselves, and more aware that people would find it harder to accept ideas in independent political newspapers, and it does affect it, just to make it more accurate and clear."

Currently there are 15 people working on Al-Muajaha locally in Iraq. Besides a little international help from the Bristol Indymedia center, the bulk of the work is being done by students, all working together for one ultimate goal: Freedom of Speech.

At 17, Majid Jarrar has already considered a concept that most people his age, and most people around the world fail to acknowledge: with a little hope and a lot of hard work, anything is possible - one could even make history.

"We just want to bridge the world with the Iraqi people, and bridge the Iraqi people with the world, politically, socially and culturally," says Jarrar of his ambitions for Al-Muajaha.

A noble aspiration to say the least.

SEE ALSO: www.almuajaha.com

--
Matt Elliott
A J-school student at the U of King's in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Matt Elliot is a contributor-at-large for LAS magazine.

See other articles by Matt Elliott.

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