December 8, 2005
6 Questions for Haider Ajina
by HANK SIMS
McKinleyville resident Haider Ajina (left) is something of a phenomenon in the blogosphere. For the last couple of years, the 43-year-old Baghdad native has translated "positive" articles from the Iraqi press into English, e-mailing one or two stories a day to whoever would like to receive them. In that time, numerous right-leaning Internet commentators have come to rely on Ajina's dispatches for reassurance that the war isn't going so badly after all. The Eureka Reporter began running a regular column consisting of Ajina's translations.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon, in association with a US-based contractor known as the Lincoln Group, had paid several Iraqi papers cash in order to plant good-news stories in their pages. According to the Times, these articles were written by Americans in English by soldiers attached to a military "information operations" unit, then translated into Arabic for public consumption. Apparently, the newspapers were not told that the stories were written by U.S. forces.
The Journal checked in with Ajina on Tuesday to ask him about the Iraqi media and to see what he made of the story.
1. You supported the war in Iraq. You were eager to see the country where you spent much of your boyhood liberated from a dictator. At one point, you found a way to help people here in America know what was going on over there -- the positive side of the story. How did you come to it?
I first started it when I started to talk to [Arcata soldier and Iraq veteran] Josh Ingram. He was doing tours around to places locally talking about the positive stuff that was going on. I was doing these tours at the time, too, and I realized how little people knew of the good things we were doing over there. Somebody said, "Where are you getting this news?" I said, "Well, from the Iraqi papers that I read online." He said, "How about you start translating those things and sending them to me?"
Then I added another person, and another and another, and the list kept growing from there. Now I do it on a regular basis.
2. It seems like your mailing list has gotten quite large. You look on the web, and there's tons and tons of people that reference your e-mail updates. How quickly after the invasion did the Iraqi press take off?
It looks like there were a number of newspapers being published outside of Iraq, especially by the opposition groups, that immediately set up shop within weeks after we liberated Baghdad. These papers started popping up and setting up web pages, and then they started showing their PDF files, what the paper actually looked like.
I compared that to what my dad was reading over there -- he went over in January or February of '04. I started asking him what the papers looked like over there, and they were identical. So I said, O.K. -- if I look at the PDF files of these newspapers, that's exactly what the Iraqis are reading. So I started translating those articles.
It happened within weeks. The papers have been exponentially increasing in number since then. Now there's a bit of a plateauing happening, because the advertising revenues run out pretty quick with so many papers around.
3. So, the press scene there is flourishing. Not only newspapers, but television, too?
The really exciting thing I've been reading about -- and you can listen over the web -- is that the chat radio has completely taken off over there. People are calling in, complaining, voicing opinions about anything. Especially with the [Saddam Hussein] trial going on right now, there's been a lot of people calling in saying, "Why are we wasting all this time? Let's just find him guilty and get rid of him." There are those who have that school of thought -- why are we wasting our money on this -- and there are those who know that we need to show everybody that rule of law needs to prevail.
It's just kind of interesting listening to these discussions and conversations. When Saddam was over there, there was no chat radio. No one complained about anything. Now they can talk about things, and, well, it creates a venting process. And maybe if the elected representatives listen to these things they can help the people in general.
4. You have a sort of special interest in the media scene over there. So what do you think about this recent story? Free media is a sort of brand-new experience over there, and people are just learning how to use it. So do you think that this recent story [about planted stories] is going to set back the cause of free media?
Well, Iraqis from the beginning have been very skeptical of their media anyway, because it used to be state-run, and they wouldn't always take it seriously. They never internalized what their media told them because it was government-controlled. They understood that.
Now that there really is no government media, Iraqis are having to fish out the information from the hundreds of newspapers that are available. And that's also a frustrating experience. Who do you believe? Over there, most papers are actually arms of political parties. The neutral papers are much smaller in number than the ones that are sponsored by a party.
One independent paper, Al Mada, published these articles, but they did put on there that they were paid-for announcements. They didn't disclaim it any further, other than to run it as a "paid-for announcement." Maybe because the media is so green over there, they didn't feel any other disclaimer was necessary.
Other papers didn't put anything. They just published the stories.
They've not been happy about it -- that's the overall sentiment. The press has not been happy about what happened. They feel taken advantage of, I think is the best way to put it. And if this happens again, I think they're going to be much more careful the second time around.
If we did plant these stories -- and I'm hoping they were true stories, at least -- we probably knew that this media is so green that they probably wouldn't disclaim them properly. But now the media knows what has happened, and I think next time around they will disclaim it properly. And I think that's fine.
5. Given that free media is so new in Iraq, do you think that people there are sophisticated enough to distinguish between a news story and a paid advertisement?
I'm not sure. I would think yes, but of course I'm not there. But given what's been said and published recently, I think that they will be much more aware of this kind of stuff. A lot of people have written and spoken about this incident over there. But also there's an understanding that you need this as a tool.
6. You send out maybe two e-mails a day, usually, with stories from the Iraqi press. Do you think that your understanding of the situation in Iraq might have been influenced by this program?
Well, I was looking back over at the type of information I translated. And it was often -- most of the time -- a translation of a press release by the Iraqi government or an official in the Iraqi government. The people were quoted, and the writers were identified. I did not translate any news releases that were issued by our military, thinking that Reuters or the Associated Press or whoever would pick those up.
I think that may have filtered me away from these stories, because if the official's name and the journalist's name is on there that would lend more legitimacy to it.
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