Salam Pax has certainly made a name for his pseudonym. The blogger that gave a detailed account of life in Baghdad as the bombs dropped last spring had his true identity questioned by every news outlet that wrote about him. But over time -- and with a high-profile verification that he was who he said he was -- Pax became a credible diarist and got a regular column for the Guardian and a published book that collects his blogging entries.
As Salam becomes more than just an anonymous blogger (while remaining anonymous), two more Iraqis, going by the names Riverbend and Zeyad, have started English-language Weblogs to help bring the street life of Baghdad alive. And two periodicals in English, the Baghdad Bulletin and Iraq Today, have taken on the Herculean task of producing independent news in print and online from Baghdad.
The problem? Establishing trust with audiences that instantly default to mistrust and cynicism. Riverbend started her blog by saying, "A little bit about myself: I'm female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That's all you need to know." But the next day, she was already upset that her readers didn't trust her. "You know what really bugs me about posting on the Internet, chat rooms or message boards?" she wrote. "The first reaction (usually from Americans) is 'You're lying, you're not Iraqi.'...That shouldn't bother me, but it does."
Unlike Salam Pax's more subtle reading of the U.S. occupation, Riverbend gets a little more emotional in her rants, has called for a removal of U.S. troops, decried the reasons for the war, and often dings Fox News and George W. Bush. Those positions brought her a torrent of hate e-mail, that in turn caused her to explain more about her background and her mixed feelings about Americans.
If Riverbend is more caustic towards American occupation, then Zeyad is a lot more supportive. In fact, Riverbend's blog is titled "Baghdad Burning," while Zeyad's is called "Healing Iraq." Zeyad has a pretty well-hidden bio page that tells his audience a little more about himself: He's studying to be a dentist, he's 24 years old, and he's a hardcore atheist, "who has a great hope for a new and democratic Iraq." But his last line is telling: "Would appreciate no one calling him fake after reading this."
But without verification that they are who they say they are, Riverbend and Zeyad could be anyone -- maybe a plant from an anti-war organization or a Republican operative. Or maybe just a high school kid playing an elaborate joke.
Disclosure vs. Safety
Blogger Jeff Jarvis has taken Zeyad under his wing, so to speak, excerpting many of his posts and defending him as a journalist because he "is reporting what he sees and feels and hears -- and thinks." Glenn Reynolds, who pens the InstaPundit blog, seconds Jarvis on the journalism being practiced by the bloggers.
"I find the blogs interesting because they (sometimes) provide useful information," Reynolds told me via e-mail. "I find Riverbend a bit whiny at times, but interesting. Salam Pax is interesting, and [Zeyad] takes a very different slant from the other two. Now that there are other channels of information from Iraq, the Iraqi bloggers aren't as important as Salam Pax was last year, but they're still interesting and useful."
Paul Grabowicz, director of the new media program at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, has his reservations about the work done by anonymous bloggers.
"It's very hard for me to make any judgment about them because frankly I have no idea who they are," Grabowicz told me. "Generally I think it's good that they're doing this, but on the other hand, I don't know what they're representative of, how representative they are. I think it's great that people are doing those kinds of things. But this is the odd paradox: They're a check on mainstream media, but they have to adopt the same standards of journalism. Disclosure is one of the critical ones."
Many do believe that Riverbend and Zeyad are who they say they are. Chris Allbritton, a freelance journalist who wrote the Back to Iraq Weblog, says he has corresponded with Riverbend by e-mail and believes she is a woman writing from Baghdad. He points out that someone put up a fake version of her Weblog with the name "Riversbend," but was quickly attacked by people in the blogosphere. "One of the great things about the blogosphere is that there's built-in fact-checking," Allbritton told me. "So many people will swarm it that generally the truth of the matter will come out."
Hossein Derakhshan, a blogger and freelance journalist and designer in Toronto who has helped promote the burgeoning Iranian blogosphere, has corresponded with Zeyad and said the photo on his "About me" page makes his story believable.
"Iranians have the same problem about their anonymity," he said via e-mail. "But it's getting easier as more people write by their real names. I guess it's more of an unsecure feeling than of a real threat. How many fanatic Iraqi people know English, and how many of them know this guy? And when American soldiers are in the streets anywhere, why do they need to get rid of this guy?"
Uploading publications from a war zone
Anonymous bloggers aren't the only ones suffering from credibility problems. The nascent English-language media in Iraq also have plenty of reasons to be viewed with suspicion: Are they shills for the U.S. or U.K. governments? Who is behind them and what is their agenda?
Iraq Today sprung up in April as a weekly English-language newspaper and Web site. Its work was lauded by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and David Frum at National Review Online. The newspaper was founded and funded by Hussain Sinjari, a Kurdish Iraqi who runs the Iraq Institute for Democracy, and has many ties to the U.S. and Europe. Iraq Today was co-funded by Mina Corp., a U.K. investment company headed by Stephen MacSearraigh.
Harvard Business School associate professor Michael Watkins did a background check on MacSearraigh, and found that he was a former research director for Petroleum Intelligence Weekly -- "The 'Bible' of the international oil and gas industry for the last 40 years."
In an essay titled "Right Wing Media Conspiracies," Watkins questioned the background of Iraq Today's journalists and the origin of Mina Corp. MacSearraigh defended the legitimacy of his company and the paper, citing many inaccuracies in Watkins' posting (many of which Watkins refutes).
Iraq Today's Web site was down all this week. But I spoke with Mina Corp.'s advertising liason in the U.K., Caroline Binns, who told me the newspaper was very much still in business, but that Web access is switching to subscription-only and will be up again next week. Binns called it a "small technical problem" and said that anyone interested in getting a PDF version of the paper, can e-mail her at [email protected] for two free trial issues. After that, the price is $200 per year.
Binns told me they've sold "hundreds" of subscriptions, and said the newspaper had a print run of 15,000 copies. "The motto of the paper is the 'Independent Voice of Iraq,' and we have angered some people in the military and the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority]," she said. "The reason we publish in English is so that Iraqis can have their voice heard by the CPA."
The most recent issue of Iraq Today (which I viewed on PDF) includes gritty details of the bombings that rocked Baghdad at the start of Ramadan -- as well as a scathing critique of the CPA and Bush for not understanding the Iraqi people. Binns said the paper employs Iraqi journalists exclusively, including Hassan Fattah, an Iraqi New Yorker who moved back after the U.S. invasion. Fattah has written recently for Time magazine, the New Republic and Associated Press.
Bulletin on a shoestring
While Binns said that Iraq Today staffers were robbed at gunpoint trying to get its first edition out last April, the people at the Baghdad Bulletin worked in an office with a live land mine outside its front door. The Bulletin launched in June, and quickly gained a reputation for being an independent source of news in print and online -- with a staff composed of Westerners and Iraqis. The paper and Web site went on hiatus in September when the group ran out of money.
Editor David Enders is trying to raise enough money to re-launch, while the site is still reachable with back issues online in PDF format. "We were seeing a steady increase in ad revenue, but did not have enough capital to get through to break even," Enders told me via e-mail. "We started the mag with a little less than $25,000, from scratch, sort of a philanthropic investment from some apolitical backers in the U.K. I met with some Iraqi businessmen in the States about funding but everyone wants a piece of the editorial control, and we're not willing to give that up."
Past Bulletin stories are a mix of criticisms of the occupation, and details on the political battles on the new governing council. There's also a moving obituary for Rich Wild, a freelance British journalist who was killed in Baghdad in July.
Like the Iraq Today site, the Bulletin's site was hosted in the U.K. Enders told me the site design was done pro bono by a friend. "Technical problems were mainly that we couldn't find a server fast enough to upload photos here and that we couldn't afford our own satellite connection, so we were forced to update from Internet cafes."