Despite President Donald Trump’s disdain for some news organizations, a group of Iraqi journalists touring Montana this week said the U.S. news media have much to be thankful for.
“For you in the U.S., when it comes to the Constitution and the law, it’s all in favor of empowering free press,” said Dishad Anwar Ali Jaf, a reporter for Dangi Amerika in Iraq, through a translator. “ … In Iraq, it’s much more different. The laws are reversed to what you have. We have laws on paper, we do have a freedom of information act,” but it is not enforced.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 11 journalists were killed in the United States between 1992 and 2018. In Iraq, the number is 186.
“There is a certain framework set for journalists to work within,” Jaf said. “But for self-protection, it’s important that the journalists, they self-censor. They are careful with what they do and how they do it.”
Jaf was one of five Iraqi journalists touring Montana through the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. Hosted by WorldMontana, a center for diplomacy and leadership based at Carroll College in Helena, the group was here to examine the rights and responsibilities of a free and independent press in democracy, visit with U.S. journalists, and observe their work.
In Helena, the group met with journalists at the Independent Record and other publications, a political blogger, and the faculty of Carroll College’s communications program. Their time in Montana also included visits to the Capitol building, Yellowstone National Park, the University of Montana School of Journalism, and the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources in Missoula.
While it’s not uncommon for Iraqi journalists to speak out about government conditions in general, Jaf said, it can be dangerous to criticize officials by name.
Shalaw Mohammed Abdulrahman, editor-in-chief of the Kurdistan Now Foundation for Media, described government officials in Iraq as very thin-skinned. He said two government officials recently contacted a fellow Iraqi journalist and asked him to remove something he published about the leadership in his region.
“The journalists who have the least problems are the ones that we call journalists who have masters,” he said. “If they get into trouble, the political parties come in their defense. We call them the pets, the ones that are taken care of.”
Ranjdar Fatah Saleh, a reporter for Iraq Oil Report, said it’s also common for the government's opposition to try to discredit or silence unfavorable press.
“In America, Trump says journalists are the enemy of the people. In Kurdistan, if you touch upon the corruption of any political party, you will be accused of that. The ruling parties say you are the enemy of the people,” he said. “And then if you try to do it on the opposition groups, try to expose their corruption, they call you a tool in the hands of the government. Journalists are like a football in the middle.”
The most interesting thing Saleh has observed in the United States is the prominent role citizens play in government decision-making, he said.
“People here maybe don’t expect things from the government, but they do it,” he said. “Other places, they expect government to do things for them.”
Jaf was most interested in the level of respect Americans have for immigrants, as well as the way all 50 states work together despite their different laws.
“Everybody is coexisting with each other without infringing on each other,” he said.