25 March 2008

VOA and Iraq: Five Years of Coverage

In terms of US policy and world interest, there have been few stories of more importance to VOA audiences over the past five years than the war in Iraq. It is why, despite the inherent risks and the extraordinary expense, VOA, like other major news organizations, has maintained a presence in Iraq throughout virtually all of the war.

This week, with the US death toll reaching 4,000, the war remained a top story on VOANews.com --- not just the milestone in American casualties, but also the news of fresh fighting in Baghdad, Basra and northern Iraq --- as well as new US allegations of Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents.

Nevertheless, for other American news organizations, the war has in recent weeks slipped off the frontpage. The Project for Excellence in Journalism has a “News Coverage Index” which examines close to 50 news outlets to determine what is being covered and what is not in the US. The findings are released weekly.

The latest PEJ report covers March 17-23. It shows the 2008 US Presidential campaign was the top story overall among US newspapers, online outlets, network and cable TV and radio, receiving an average of 39% of the available time/space for news.

Coming in second, with 16% of what is called the “news hole”, was the US economy.

News from China, presumably about Tibet, was in third place with five percent.

Events in Iraq were fourth in overall news coverage, with just three percent of the available time/space for news.

Richard Perez-Pena, writing in the New York Times, says the drop in coverage “parallels – and may be explained by – a decline in public interest.” He says experts offer additional explanations including “the danger and expense for covering Iraq and shrinking newsroom budgets.” In addition, he says, “in the last year, a flagging economy and the most competitive presidential campaign in memory have diverted attention and resources.”

VOA is of course covering the US election campaign extensively as it is the US economy.

But the war in Iraq remains a major interest among VOA audiences and not just in English. Our Persian News Network, broadcasting to Iran, for example, does extensive reporting on Iraq-related developments. In recent days, they have interviewed the US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker; General David Petraeus, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq; and they have reported on Vice President Dick Cheney’s surprise visit to Baghdad and Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq.

Of course, PNN’s big coup was interviewing President Bush himself. The interview focused on the President’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program but also noted the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.

For other VOA language services reaching the Middle East, Iraq also remains the top story. In Iraq, the Kurdish service has half a dozen stringers who report on the daily news and interview newsmakers. The Turkish service has two stringers in Iraq.

In addition to reports directly from these stringers, those services do nearly daily interviews via phone with newsmakers in Iraq, from high-ranking officials to leaders of different parties, parliamentarians and persons-in-the-street.
For the record, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports 127 journalists have been killed in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003. In addition, 50 media support workers have been killed.

The fatalities, as noted by CPJ, include:

Mohammad Siddik, Freelance/Voice of America, February 17, 2006, Baghdad

"Siddik, a driver and security guard who worked part time with the Voice of America, was shot and killed by an unknown assailant near his home in the Doura section of Baghdad. The attack took place shortly after Siddik dropped a VOA correspondent at Baghdad airport. The assailant approached Siddik and shot him in the head and torso while Siddik waited in line to buy cooking oil at a shop near his home."

Selwan Abdelghani Medhi al-Niemi, Voice of America, March 5, 2004, Baghdad

"Al-Niemi, a freelance translator working for VOA, was fatally shot while driving home from a relative's house. His mother and 4-year-old daughter were also killed. VOA said a motive had not been established.

"Al-Niemi's wife, Ban Adil Serhan, a former translator for the U.S.-based media company Knight-Ridder, told CPJ that she believes she was also an intended target and that the assailants mistook al-Niemi's mother for her.

"On the day of her husband's funeral, she said, her brother discovered a handwritten note outside the family's front door. Citing Quranic verses, the note said people who work with 'infidels' should be killed and warned that Adil Serhan's 'turn will come soon, God willing.'"

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