Zeyad was interviewed on the stage at the Online News Association by USA Today’s Mark Memmott and the room was pin-drop-silent from start to end. I thought it was riveting and so did many others.
Zeyad told the story of the beginning of his blog and then about milestones in its life and the transformation of his thinking about the war — from the start of the war, when Zeyad was optimistic for Iraq; to the lack of media coverage of prodemocracy demonstrations in Baghdad in 2003; to the death of his cousin at the hands of American soldiers; to his current view of the war. When Zeyad pushed for and got an investigation into his cousin’s death (which found the Americans at fault), he said he saw a backlash among his readers. “They accused me of all kinds of things, particularly because I [had been] optimistic. I realized some people were supporting me just because I was saying things they wanted to hear.”
Memmott asked about the accusation that news media here are not covering enough good news in Iraq. “That what I thought in the beginning,” Zeyad said. “Over the last year, I think they are not covering how bad it is.” What are they missing? “Most of the coverage revolves around attacks on American forces and, of course, I understand that. But they are missing the sectarian violence going on around the country. And it’s also extremely difficult for Western media to get that story.” He praised a story in the Washington Post a week ago profiling a neighborhood and also praised some Times coverage. “But it’s not enough.” He said the TV coverage he has seen has been dreadful.
Zeyad explained that today, he gets most of his news from local message boards, “a great treasure trove. Sometimes, you have to sift through a lot of rubbish and propaganda…. But at the same time, you get some gems from these sites.” He explained that when he sees the same reports on opposing boards, he knows he has hit news. He suggested that media should be doing this themselves; he hasn’t seen evidence that they are.
He painted a terrifying picture of life in Baghdad, of “neighborhood shelling neighborhood.” In his Sunni area, “almost every night there is an exchange of mortar shells between neighbors and I haven’t seen that in any Western media. It goes on every night…. Sometimes, it’s just ordinary people from both neighborhoods. Trust is gone.” (Later, with Paul Brennan of the BBC, we sat in the hall and watched an Alive in Baghdad report about local patrols and Zeyad recognizes his own neighborhood.)
Asked whether this is civil war, he said: “I ask you back: How do you define a civil war? Does what I describe sound like a civil war — neighborhoods fighting each other? Yes, I think that’s a civil war.”
From the audience, he was asked whether he has feared for his life. “Yes, I was fearful for my life all the time and I had to weigh everything that I posted.”
Asked to quantify “how much of the story” Americans are getting — 80 percent or 20 percent, say — Zeyad said we are getting half the story. What’s missing? “The local story. I’m sure you get news about attacks — suicide car bombs — all the time, almost every day. And, of course, news about the government, which is really irrelevant. The government doesn’t control anything and doesn’t even control the Green Zone.” Coverage, he said, “should focus on the people and what’s going on on the street.”
Memmott ended asking whether Western media can do anything to help Iraqi bloggers. Zeyad replied: “They can help by publicizing the blogs… I don’t think they are getting the attention they should get. Right now they are a source of information complementing western coverage and they are a great source. They cover almost anything.” He points to the blog of an 18-year-old girl in Mosul, who writes about going through checkpoints to get to school. This isn’t just numbers, Zeyad says. “You get a great insight from these. It also puts a human face on the war. ”
: Here’s E&P’s report.