Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Ghost on the Internet

There are interesting points of contrast between Sarah Boxer's speculation on the affiliations and motives of the Iraq the Model bloggers and Associated Press' determination to protect the anonymity and refusal to judge the motives of a stringer who photographed the execution of Iraqi electoral workers at fairly close range on Haifa Street. The juxtapositions are even more interesting because one of the bloggers in Iraq the Model  is standing for election under the Iraqi Pro-Democracy Party ticket while the victims of the Haifa Street execution were workers helping organize that election.

Iraq the Model Bloggers Unknown Associated Press Photographer
When I telephoned a man named Ali Fadhil in Baghdad last week, I wondered who might answer. A CIA operative? An American posing as an Iraqi? Someone paid by the Defense Department to support the war? Or simply an Iraqi with some mixed feelings about the American presence in Iraq? Until he picked up the phone, he was just a ghost on the Internet.
-- Sarah Boxer

From JACK STOKES, director of media relations, Associated Press: [This is a solicited letter regarding Salon's "The Associated Press 'insurgency.'"] Several brave Iraqi photographers work for The Associated Press in places that only Iraqis can cover. Many are covering the communities they live in where family and tribal relations give them access that would not be available to Western photographers, or even Iraqi photographers who are not from the area.

Insurgents want their stories told as much as other people and some are willing to let Iraqi photographers take their pictures. It's important to note, though, that the photographers are not "embedded" with the insurgents. They do not have to swear allegiance or otherwise join up philosophically with them just to take their pictures.

Jeez guys – I thought you said everything was fine in Iraq!This trio uses their real names in interviews, on their web sites and even in press releases. This USA Today article and this LA Times piece also mentioned the CIA allegations (in the context of rebutting them, though Boxer also seemed to conclude the bloggers weren’t with the CIA). (Both are pay links, alas).
-- Derek Rose
A source at the Associated Press knowledgeable about the events covered in Baghdad on Sunday told Salon that accusations that the photographer was aware of the militants' plans are "ridiculous." The photographer, whose identity the AP is withholding due to safety concerns, was likely "tipped off to a demonstration that was supposed to take place on Haifa Street," said the AP source, who was not at liberty to comment by name. But the photographer "definitely would not have had foreknowledge" of a violent event like an execution, the source said.
-- Salon

The most powerful argument that can be mustered in favor Ms. Boxer is, as Derek Rose pointed out, that she could hardly make things worse for Ali or his brothers. After all, in Ms. Boxer's own words, things had already hit a low point after "the Washington Post wrote about the meeting, and the Arabic press ended up translating the story, which, Ali felt, put his family in real danger." One might even argue that Ali and his brothers put their own lives in jeopardy after they decided to blog, visit America and stand for elections. So it is no one's fault but their own. 'Insurgents' and journalists are above the moral judgment  --  they are merely disinterested, impersonal forces that visit the necessary fates or coverage on those who bring it on themselves.

The problem with this line of argument is that it fails to account for the weight given to symbolism in the insurgent's targeting calculus. The Iraqi electoral workers were killed on Haifa Street not out of any personal spite against them but because these noncelebrities symbolized a process which the insurgents were determined to derail. A photographer was invited -- through subterfuge according to the Associated Press -- but invited nonetheless to record the execution of the symbols. It was a kind of burning in effigy with real people acting as effigies. Hence, Ms. Boxer's semiotic operations on the Iraq the Model bloggers are not as harmless as Derek Rose would make it seem. Neither, for that matter, is this post itself, a fact of which I am most acutely aware.

Then there is no help for it but to destroy these insurgents root and branch; because for so long as these terrorists exist then expressing an independent opinion, running for election or shaking the hand of the President of the United States will always be offenses punishable by death. That is to say, for so long as terrorists and their publicists prevail, then neither bloggers, nor a free press nor people anything remotely like Sarah Boxer will never be able to exist in Iraq. It is not necessary to agree with Iraq the Model in order to defend their right to say it. Of all the uses to which Ms. Boxer could have put freedom, this was the worst.


Reader MJ links to Ali's reponse to the Sarah Boxer piece on Iraq the Model.

The article was, despite Ms Boxer's kindness, a bad piece of journalism. I had around 45 minutes long phone call with the reporter about my journey with Iraq the Model, my new site, the elections, the general situation here in Baghdad but she (or the paper) seems to have a certain agenda and managed to change the whole issue into a very silly gossip (going as far as quoting trolls!) that is way beneath any respectable paper and certainly beneath me so I won't give it more attention but lesson learned and I won't make the mistake of talking to anyone from the NY times again.