It is not often that we hear journalists referring to themselves pompously as the “Fourth Estate”, except perhaps in war-weary Iraq. I attended with a team of IFJ leaders the 143rd anniversary of the publication of the first Iraqi newspaper which is celebrated every year in Baghdad by our affiliate union, the Iraq Journalists’ Union.
Bringing together all the great and the good in Iraq ranging from the political leaders, politicians of all hues, army senior officers, clerics, captain of industry, academics, guests from both the IFJ and the Federation of Arab Journalists as well as actors, musicians, writers and poets from all over the Arab world, the union succeeded in creating a rare mosaic of celebs and rank-and-file members and their families.
It was a breathtaking sight to hear the powers that be, led by Iraq Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, bow down in front of the “Fourth Estate” at the opening ceremony at the Ar Rachid hotel. He managed though to slip through a long political message but what counted for journalists is that he wanted to be seen to be there because it was Journalism Day.
Further away from the ceremonious political scoring, a more popular get-together was under way at a massive rally held in one of Baghdad’s park, assembling thousands of journalists and their families from all over Iraq and open to the public. It was a cross between a gigantic theme park and a country fair, which it was claimed, attracted in all over one million revellers. The climax was a concert where some of the stars of the current Arab music gave a performance, rarely seen in Baghdad, drowned in the bangs of fireworks while helicopters roared ahead scattering bags of goodies. All of this was done under the banner of the union of Iraqi journalists.
Another discovery was what the union achieved in their negotiations on media regulation. While Lord Levison was still toiling among the vast army of media executives, publishers, QCs, politicians, celebrities to determine the shape of future regulations in the UK, the union in Iraq quietly achieved a very advanced arrangement, which if it works, would be unique to journalists. They lobbied for and achieved a piece of legislation which set up a special tribunal, led by an independent judge, dealing with the standard of Iraqi journalism, including complaints from the public in particular.
I met him and he turned out to be a passionate man whose aim in life, he said, was to strengthen press freedom, reinforce quality journalism and consolidate editorial independence. His brief is to receive complaints from the public which he investigates, acting like an ombudsman. He can call on the help of scores of specialists, including academics, lecturers of journalism, lawyers etc., but the legislation compels him to first seek the views of the union before deciding whether a case is admissible. The union has a standing lawyer to help defend the journalist. I was astounded to hear that, among the texts the judge uses as reference to investigate cases, is the IFJ’s Code of Principles for the Conduct of Journalism which was adopted by the 1954 World Congress of the IFJ.
I thought I knew most about our Iraqi union post-invasion but its accomplishments, time and again, will continue to come as a surprise to us.