Starting from Scratch: A University Newspaper in Iraq's Kurdistan Region Includes Both Kurds and Arabs on the Staff and Strives to Bring Straight-Down-the-Middle Journalism to a Country Where That Has Long Been Hard to Find

By Spinner, Jackie | American Journalism Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Starting from Scratch: A University Newspaper in Iraq's Kurdistan Region Includes Both Kurds and Arabs on the Staff and Strives to Bring Straight-Down-the-Middle Journalism to a Country Where That Has Long Been Hard to Find


Spinner, Jackie, American Journalism Review


Arez Hussen Ahmed never tells the whole story, preferring not to disclose the specifics of how he got into college. He reveals only, and reluctantly, that he worked at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani before he enrolled in October 2008, before he became one of the school's top academic performers, before he went on to lead a staff of 50 students at the first independent student newspaper in Iraq.

Joshua Mitchell, the chancellor of the American university at the time, encouraged Ahmed to apply, telling him that he could be anything he wanted to be. It didn't matter where he came from or how much money he had. It didn't matter about his political party affiliation, which in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where the university is located, determines virtually everything. It only mattered that Ahmed was smart and willing to work hard.

Ahmed, now 19 and majoring in international studies, may not be ready to embrace it, but his rags-to-riches saga is the story of the AUI-S Voice, a scrappy bimonthly newspaper with an excess of spelling and grammatical errors as well as an abundance of ambition. The student newspaper is attempting to do what few professional media outlets have been able to accomplish since the fall of Saddam Hussein: to bring Arab and Kurdish journalists together in a politically and ethnically divided Iraq with no alliance to any political party or religious sect, with no allegiance to anything at all except fairness and accuracy.

"It has not been an easy experience to be a journalist, but I have made great strides in a few months," Ahmed says. "I experienced being the head of a newspaper, dealing with a large staff, balancing my studies and work, improving my writing and feeling what leaders feel when they face crises and problems."

The AUI-S Voice published its first issue on January 31, 2010, with coverage of the university's first MBA graduation, news of an environmental sciences major being developed and an editorial arguing against a Facebook ban on campus. I was the founder and first faculty adviser of the Voice. Nothing in my career as a journalist--and yet, paradoxically, everything--had prepared me for this experience: starting a newspaper at an upstart university in a fractured country, with limited press laws outside our campus walls and a government that a Kurdish writer described as a fledgling dictatorship rather than a fledgling democracy.

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Mitchell and the provost, John Agresto, had great concerns about the student newspaper venture. The university had tried to launch a newspaper the year before, but political parties tried to control it through the students, and the administration immediately shut it down. AUI-S was trying hard to remain independent itself, and the university was vulnerable to such overtures. It accepts most of its funds from key political, and business leaders in the region while trying to remain independent of their influences.

Like the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has a highly partisan press that dominates the information flow. A couple of newspapers are semi-independent, but objectivity, or even the pursuit of objectivity, is hard to find. In the first few months of publication of the Voice, Zardasht Osman, a 23-year-old student at the University of Salahaddin, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. A journalist, Osman had written scathing articles about government leaders in Kurdistan.

This was the climate in which we launched the AUI-S Voice.

To make certain that students who joined the paper understood how serious we were about staying neutral, I wrote a detailed policy manual based on the best practices of a number of college newspapers in the United States.

The Voice prohibits students in political party leadership positions from overseeing the staff; accepting financial contributions from political parties; and publishing stories or editorials about political issues, a rule that we implemented, in part, to teach the students that they could not simply crib details about events at which they were not present.

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Starting from Scratch: A University Newspaper in Iraq's Kurdistan Region Includes Both Kurds and Arabs on the Staff and Strives to Bring Straight-Down-the-Middle Journalism to a Country Where That Has Long Been Hard to Find
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