Friday, January 05, 2007

Capt. Jamil Hussein

The Associated Press is reporting that the Iraqi Interior Ministry has acknowledged today that the "mysterious" Captain Jamil Hussein is in fact an active member of the Iraqi police force.

Both the Interior Ministry and U.S. CENTCOM had denied his existence following an AP report on the burning of six Sunni people in Hurriya a few weeks ago. He now faces arrest for speaking to the media without authorisation, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

The current Iraqi government has crossed a dangerous line in its attempts to silence its critics. Closing independent satellite channels that are not cheerleading for them, and issuing arrest warrants for police officers who speak to the media.

What's next?

UPDATE: I've been following the exchange in the blogosphere over this issue for a while. It unfortunately descended into a juvenile contest over who is right and who is wrong, and it eventually boiled down to a right vs. left argument. Just as there are many bloggers who can’t wait for a chance to jump over the media, for whatever reasons, the media, by the same token, too often haughtily considers itself above reproach, as in the case of the Associated Press when it dismissed serious accusations as “ludicrous.”

I was just discussing this today with some classmates who were unfamiliar with the story. The AP should come clean about the whole affair, I told them, and admit that it was misled by its Iraqi stringers if that proved to be the case, because its very credibility was on the line.

The blogosphere focused on the identity of Capt. Hussein, claiming he was a manufactured source, but now some are saying this is a secondary issue and that they were really concerned about the truth. Give me a break.

Capt. Hussein was not the sole source for the story, as some bloggers have said. AP only quoted him after the alleged incident made its rounds on local Iraqi message boards and was circulated extensively by SMS messages in Baghdad. The Sunni tribal sheikh who first mentioned the story on Al-Jazeera was later “visited” by an Iraqi Defense Ministry delegation and then he sinisterly retracted his account. AP reporters returned to Hurriya and corroborated the incident from several eyewitnesses, some who, understandably, refused to be named. A few residents denied though. It could be that the Shia residents denied the story taking place, because they sympathised with the Mahdi Army, or it could be that the Sunni residents just can’t wait for another chance to point out the barbarity of Shi’ite militias. Commentators in the West often overlook these nuances. The same when they readily accepted the denials of the Interior Ministry and CENTCOM. They don’t remember that the same ministry denied the allegations of torture last year before the Jadiriya prison scandal was uncovered.

I have heard from friends in Baghdad that they have seen a cell phone video of the burning incident and that it was broadcast on Zawra TV. They couldn’t get me the clip when I asked for it, though. Mosques have been burned before in Baghdad, so I also can’t see why that would be surprising to some American bloggers. Just check my YouTube page on the sidebar for examples.

Could the whole incident be just an urban legend, given the highly polarised environment in Iraq today and the total lack of trust between the Shia and Sunni communities in Baghdad? I would say it’s totally possible, and there have been many occasions of outlandish accusations made by both sides of the conflict, to the extent that it is hard to discern the truth of what is happening. That is why we have to rely sometimes on Internet postings, rumours, word of mouth, and incomplete reporting. The alternative would be no news stories, as it is a bit absurd to ask for media organisations on the ground in Iraq to apply Western standards in their reporting. Yes, sometimes sources have to be bribed, local stringers often have to be blindly trusted, and relying on anonymous sources has to be the norm because everyone fears for their life.

There have been many cases of sloppy and incompetent reporting from Iraq. Just a few days ago, the NY Times in its rush got most of its story about Saddam’s final words wrong. And it didn’t even bother to post a correction the next day when the cell phone video recording was out for the whole word to see. Actually, the coverage of Saddam’s execution has been the worst reporting by Western media in Iraq since 2003. The stories were full of erroneous translations of what was said in the video and many other discrepancies.

American bloggers were astounded that it took so long to verify that Capt. Hussein exists. What they don’t see is that it is almost impossible for an independent party to just walk into the Khadraa’ police station and ask for the man, otherwise the NY Times or the WaPo would probably have done it. I personally tried to convince my sources in Baghdad to locate the man and they told me I was crazy to make such a request. Another thing that bloggers haven’t considered is that all this controversy may have well caused Capt. Hussein to reject any further media exposure and go underground. I’m sure Capt. Hussein was pretty far from interested in having his photo and identity put out there just for some far away American bloggers to prove a point in their ideological debate. And I’m sure he doesn’t give a rat’s behind about APs credibility either.

The question that should be asked, by bloggers and the media alike, is why the Iraqi government persists to shoot the messenger - Al-Jazeera TV, Al-Arabiya TV, Zawraa TV, Salah Al-Din TV, Sharqiya TV, the guard who filmed Saddam's execution, and now Capt. Jamal Hussein - instead of going after the people responsible for the atrocities?