He was one of the more self-assured Iraqi journalists participating in my November seminar on newer media in Beirut. But after class, the television reporter sought my advice, this time nervously and with far less self-assurance.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi told me that ever since being kidnapped the previous year in Baghdad and released unharmed, he had trouble sleeping at night and his nerves were on edge. He pleaded for help for post-traumatic stress from the kidnapping ordeal. Could I help him identify some possible assistance in the United States?
Such requests for help from endangered journalists are not unusual in my seminars. They may come from war-beleaguered nations, transitioning from a controlled to an independent press. They are from places like Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Serbia. What was radically different this time was that al-Zeidi, 30, an Iraqi TV reporter for satellite station Al-Baghdadiya, attained instant, international notoriety and mythical folk-hero status in the Arab world because he threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. He was sentenced in March to three years in prison.
In a rage, al-Zeidi hurled his black shoes at Bush during a press conference in Baghdad in December, shouting at him in Arabic: “This is a gift from the Iraqis. This is the farewell kiss, you dog!” A startled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki tried to shield Bush as the American president twice nimbly ducked as the shoes hurtled past his head. The incident ignited street demonstrations throughout the Arab world supporting the journalist. The shoes became a talisman, a symbolic weapon of mass protest. In the Arab world, hitting someone with a shoe and its dirty sole is an ultimate insult.
In our Beirut classroom a month earlier, al-Zeidi, a broad-faced, dark-haired young man, handsome and solidly built, was attentive and contributed to the discussions as we examined journalism and the impact of the Internet and newer media on newspapers, television and radio. But in Iraq, more immediate dangers confront print and broadcast journalists than a news industry meltdown. Many Iraqi journalists have been killed, kidnappings were rampant, and “truth telling” inevitably alienated some portion of the population, usually well-armed, vengeful and brutally responsive. Two of al-Zeidi’s station colleagues were killed previously, two more recently. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Iraq was the deadliest place on earth for journalists, with 11 Iraqi journalists killed in 2008, down from 31 the year before.
Al-Zeidi brought me copies of news articles detailing his kidnapping, and a printout of Web sites describing his abduction and release three days later, reportedly at the hands of Al-Qaeda militants. He carefully filled out a contact form I distributed, listing his TV reporter status, home address in Baghdad, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. He listed topics he wished to pursue in further studies: “freedom of media,” “coverage of elections,” “children and women’s rights.”
Al-Zeidi, his brothers told CNN, was depressed over the war’s destruction in Iraq and focused many of his stories on the deaths of Iraqi civilians. While tossing his second shoe at Bush, he yelled: “This is from the widows, the orphans and those you have killed in Iraq.” He sometimes returned from assignments in tears, urging his colleagues to donate money for the poor, according to his brothers. His kidnapping in November 2007 was traumatic. The following January, the trauma was compounded by his being held briefly by American Army troops and then released without charges, according to his family. He lived alone in central Baghdad in one of the capital’s poorest and more violent slums, an epicenter for pitched battles, according to CNN.
Al-Zeidi, The New York Times reported, headed a student union during the Saddam Hussein regime and earned a diploma from a technical institute. He worked for an Iraqi daily newspaper in 2003, then al-Diyar, a satellite channel, and two years later joined the Cairo-based al-Baghdadiya satellite station as a correspondent. Colleagues at his TV station described him as very ambitious, and one said he had planned the shoe attack on Bush for some time. His brother said al-Zeidi even canceled his wedding plans until the “occupation” of his country is ended.
Videos of the shoe attack, constantly replayed around the world on YouTube, show al-Zeidi subdued by a journalist and then quickly over-powered by a phalanx of security men. He faced up to 15 years in prison for assaulting a head of state. A hundred lawyers volunteered to represent him.
His trial began in February and, according to MSNBC, he said he was tortured in prison and forced to admit he had videotaped himself training to throw the shoes at Bush two years earlier. But he testified he decided not to attack or harm Bush in Baghdad, but exploded with uncontrolled rage and threw the shoes. His team of 25 lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he was only exercising free speech and “insulting,” not “assaulting,” a head of state. In March, he was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.
The Iraqi Judiciary Council on April 07 reduced the three-year sentence to one year, citing al-Zeidi’s youth and absence of any prior criminal record. The announcement came as President Barack Obama paid a surprise visit to Iraq.
For his part, Bush gamely dismissed the incident with humor, calling it inconsequential, and completed the press conference. Bush joked to reporters that he had looked into his attacker’s “sole” and dismissed the incident as a crude expression of protest.
Al-Zeidi fueled a firestorm of support. A sculptor built a sofa-sized, outdoor shoe replica. The Turkish manufacturer of the shoes reported a rush of orders for the shoe, now renamed the “Bye, Bye Bush” model. Web sites parodied the event, including a “sock and awe” video game, and thousands demonstrated in major cities worldwide. Copycat shoe throwers arose, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao the target at Cambridge University in February (though he urged leniency for his sneaker thrower, who was facing a possible six-month sentence in England).
But some Iraqis were deeply troubled by the affront to Bush and the grave violation of traditional Arab hospitality. An affiliation of tribal leaders condemned it, al-Maliki’s office called it a “shameful, savage act that is not related to journalism in any way” and that it “damaged the reputation of Iraqi journalists and journalism in general.”
Unquestionably, it was a dumb and dangerous thing to do, endangering the president and possibly triggering an armed response by excited security guards. And it harmed all journalists whose reputation for nonpartisanship is fundamental to their personal safety. My review of the coverage since the incident shows most news organizations failing to pick up the idea that al-Zeidi might be suffering from post-traumatic stress because of his own reported kidnapping and the later brief detention by U.S. troops. (I have written al-Zeidi an e-mail asking if his attorneys would consider using the post-traumatic stress claim as a mitigating circumstance if, in fact, it can be verified, but he was being held incommunicado.)
In Beirut the month before his shoe attack, I talked after class several times with al-Zeidi about possible help for the post-traumatic stress of his kidnapping. I suggested he contact the Committee to Protect Journalists based in New York City, which does consistently solid work for endangered journalists, and that he also ask his own TV station in Cairo to contribute to his treatment. Perhaps, if he qualified, a stay in the United States with a journalism fellowship might happen. He was one of 30 Iraqi journalists in Beirut for two months of training at the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies, a program with a presence in England, Iraq and the United States.
I have directed dozens of programs for journalists overseas, starting in 1989 in Poland after Solidarity was elected, the Soviet empire crumbled and assistance to endangered journalists became a recurring concern.
Even during the Beirut workshop, another participant, a radio journalist from Baghdad, told me he had just received a call from a friend in Iraqi security warning him not to return to the city, that his life was in danger. The journalist asked me who might help him. He was desperate, and we explored possible avenues of aid.
There is an urgent need to assist such journalists and fund programs that provide a critical safety net during times of danger, and also aid their immediate families, who often are in peril. And international journalism trainers need guidance to deal with the endangered journalists who seek their help.
Over the years, I have done numerous workshops in the republics of the former Yugoslavia; in Serbia, I assisted the owner of a fledgling, independent radio station in Nis who opposed Slobodan Milosevic. While the owner was traveling, his station was seized by the government, and he could not return home. Through the Committee to Protect Journalists, the broadcaster and his family received safe haven in the U.S., the loan of temporary housing from a prominent journalist in Washington, and later a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University. After the fall of Milosevic, the station owner returned safely to Serbia, and the station was back on the air.
We conducted many programs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the mid-1990s, I was scheduled to see Zelko Kopanja, a brave Bosnian Serb journalist who had participated in one of my investigative reporting workshops in the United States and who owned a newspaper in Banja Luka and broadcasting facilities. Just days before our meeting, he started his car; it was rigged with explosives, and he lost both of his legs.
Working with the Committee to Protect Journalists, we found support for new prosthetics and rehabilitation. He resumed his work and won an international award from CPJ for his brave reporting of human rights abuses and corruption. Unflinchingly, he urged young journalists not to shy away from tough investigative reporting.
There are many stories others could tell. Here are some action steps journalism trainers and media foundations might consider to assist journalists in physical or psychological danger because of their work:
1) Know how to stay in touch with your workshop participants by having them fill out contact sheets with name, affiliation, phone numbers and e-mail and home addresses. Often such information is incom-plete unless you gather it yourself. Share your address with them. Encourage them to write you if they ever need assistance.
2) Compile a list of agencies to help them in an emergency, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Center for Journalists, U.N. agencies dealing with refugees, Human Rights Watch or the Society of Professional Journalists. Press and public affairs officers at U.S. embassies and counterparts from other foreign embassies might also provide guidance.
3) Publicize cases of journalists in peril and their outcomes through publications such as American Journalism Review, Columbia Journalism Review or Nieman Reports. Use existing blogs and Web sites or start new ones to publicize cases of those in need.
4) Check with journalism fellowship pro-grams such as the Nieman program at Harvard; the Knight Fellowships at Stanford, Columbia and the University of Michigan for possible slots for qualified international journalists needing emergency assistance where an expedited fellowship might be possible.
5) Encourage universities with journalism and media studies programs to compile data on international journalists in need, and publicize the results through the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and its affiliates.
6) Encourage Society of Professional Journalists student chapters and state or regional professional chapters to sponsor international journalists in need, and assist them with mentoring, contacts, employment leads or financial assistance.
7) News organizations employing indig-enous media staff in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan are helping but should do more to campaign for visas and special refugee status for those employees endangered if left behind.
8) Foundations that support journalism initiatives ought to consider new funding to assist journalists and their families who confront real dangers in pursuing their work. The Obama administration through the public diplomacy, education and cultural exchange programs of the U.S. State Department might help foreign journalists in peril and expedite visa programs for endangered journalists and their families.
9) Be frank in describing the limits of what can be done. Do not over-promise, but lay out the potential and limitations. Encourage the international journalists to set up their own organizations to provide assistance to colleagues.
Jerome Aumente is distinguished emeritus professor and special counselor to the dean, Rutgers University’s School of Communication, Information and Library Studies (SCILS). He was founding director of the Journalism Resources Institute and founding chairman of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at SCILS. He has conducted more than 150 programs overseas for journalists, and JRI conducted programs for more than 14,000 journalists during his directorship. His latest book, “From Ink on Paper to the Internet,” won the Society of Professional Journalists’ national award for journalism research in 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (540) 635-6395.