Iraq's independent 'Voice'

The country's first continuously published, independent campus newspaper is an outlet for students that 'doesn't wave a flag'

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

It’s headquarters of The Voice — the first independent student newspaper in Iraq — a paper with a future teetering much like the walls that surround it.

After a year of publication, the budding paper lies in the hands of a new staff and adviser. As the only student-run paper in the school’s three-year history to take root and publish more than one issue, The Voice is looking to continue what it started while facing educational hurdles and a professional media culture that operates completely opposite of American-style journalism.

Where it started

The Voice is the brainchild of former Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner, who worked at the Post’s Baghdad bureau for two years before beginning her stint at the American University of Iraq.

In January 2010, she joined the staff at AIU-S as the director of media relations with the intention to begin an independent newspaper for the students. She wanted students to have a newspaper based around the American style of journalism — where the goals are objectivity and accountability.

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

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

“It’s called the Voice because that’s what it is meant to be. A voice for students. A voice of the students, too,” Kaftan said. “We don’t have any political connections. We don’t cover any political happenings. 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 face region-specific challenges unparalleled in the collegiate press. The region of Kurdistan maintains a vivid and distinct identity separate from Iraq – though it is not a different country.

A people hardly embraced by the rest of Iraq, the Kurdistan region has created a regional government and largely operates by its own cultural standards established by the Kurds. The American university brings together Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. Seeking to be the voice for all students, the paper has chosen to steer clear of most political coverage.

“The newspaper doesn’t wave a flag, and I think that was a hard concept for many of our students to understand given that they live in a nationalistic 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 and fresh and ongoing in Iraq and in the Kurdistan region. It is a very difficult environment to be an independent journalist and even more difficult to be a student journalist learning about those concepts that many American students have engrained in them.”

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

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

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

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

Without professional role models

The partisan professional papers that students had grown accustomed to made Spinner’s task of teaching American journalism even more challenging.

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

She started with basic concepts to show the students the ethical standards that many Iraqi papers disregarded. The Voice uses a printer with no political affiliations. While it accepts funds from the university to print its issues, it maintains an independence from any administrative influence, Spinner said.

“It is not a tool of the administration,” Spinner said. “We were fortunate that the administration that established the Voice understood the importance of editorial independence.”

The editorial setup for the Voice echoes that of most of America’s college papers. Page 2 is a designated opinion section with an editorial written by a team of student editors to establish a viewpoint 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 for the newspaper to advocate for a free press, for an open environment, for a place where all ideas can be exchanged and not just the ones from the ruling parties or the best financed parties,” Spinner said.

The ideals seem to have caught on, though, as Kaftan quickly listed the paper’s four main goals: accountability, responsibility, gate keeping and objectivity. Kaftan now believes that Iraqi journalism should be accountable and independent, and he said that as editor he wants to make sure the Voice remains that way.

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

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

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

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

“There are Arabs who serve on the paper and readers who are Arab that criticize the paper. It is interesting to watch them too, because they 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 heard and 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 paper has ever been before: past the first issue. Kaftan and Reimold both said that the school — opened in 2007— has seen three or four attempts at a student-run paper.

All but the Voice, however, have never published more than one issue. Kaftan said that the other paper’s staffs lost interest in the publication or the papers were not well received by students.

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

A free press pioneer

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

Spinner’s love for the Middle East is apparent in her actions. 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 newspaper was formed and she kind of put us on the right track,” Kaftan said. “We started with the standards of American journalism because of her and know those because of her, even though we have never had freedom of the press.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaftan said the entire university was planning to move from its building in the heart of Suli to the outskirts of the city. He was not sure whether the Voice would have a newsroom at the new building.

Then his phone beeped.

“Oh, Jackie just emailed me,” he said, smiling. “She said she 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 when attempting 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-week trip that included his attendance at an Associated Collegiate Press workshop in Minneapolis as well as visits to Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Kaftan was able to visit several newsrooms, including the Post and the New York Times, and to meet with American journalists. He said it was difficult to get his school to fund his trip because they did not think it was to learn American journalism, though they eventually 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 we should be doing,” he said.

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

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

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

Staying on track

With Spinner gone, most of the original staff members not returning and an entirely new campus, Kaftan has many obstacles to surmount if he hopes to avoid the fate of past newspapers at the campus.

“The biggest challenge now for the Voice is to make certain that the university supports it by hiring an experienced journalism educator to oversee it and to teach the students excellent standards of journalism,” Spinner said.

Currently, university registrar Paul Croft is the faculty adviser for the paper.

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

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

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

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

For Spinner, that comes full-circle.

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

By Nick Dean, SPLC staff writer

Fall 2011, reports