Launched in February 2003 to “offer a humanitarian perspective during the then-looming conflict” in Iraq, Electronic Iraq (eIraq) is the project of two groups who will be familiar to many PN readers - Voices in the Wilderness (US) and Electronic Intifada. Peace News caught up with Nigel Parry, co-founder of both projects, to discuss the ethos behind this online information project. Peace News is a progressive publication that has been publishing since 1936.
This interview was conducted by email during October 2003.
PN: How and why did this project start, who is involved and what do you hope to achieve?
NP: We began the project after two years work on Electronic Intifada website, which has proved to be an effective tool in communicating a humanitarian perspective on the conflict.
We knew that Voices in the Wilderness would have people on the ground, and this perspective was the most important part of the site for us. That we actually pulled off reporting before, during, and after the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign made the site very popular.
Most of all we wanted to communicate the experience of normal Iraqis and offer reports on the humanitarian situation in the country. These issues are a low priority for the commercial media and we wanted to offer not an alternative media project - as we certainly don’t have the resources of CNN or Reuters - but a supplementary media project that focused on the human angle.
PN: The eIraq site provides a mixture of media monitoring, first-hand reporting and your own editorial content. What are your underlying editorial principles with regards to these three areas?
NP: Much of the US media in the runup to the war was highly uncritical, and during the war was even more so. We published a number of pieces at that point which analysed the US claims about Saddam Hussein’s regime, noting that the US case for a WMD threat was both flimsy and at odds with the findings of UN weapons inspectors. Of course, now that the bombing is over and US casualties are making us wave our flags a little less excitedly, this has become acceptable mainstream media discourse. With first hand reporting, we insist that writers follow standard journalistic ethics in terms of facts and sourcing, but a lot of leeway was given in the Iraq Diaries for personal opinion. The people writing there were volunteers in an extremely dangerous situation. We felt that it was their right to express themselves. Sometimes the way they did this was frustrating as we were left with questions, and a poor communications link made it impossible to offer any more than limited editorial direction. Nonetheless we were all basically happy with how the site coped during the war.
PN: How do you organise within eIraq? Are you some kind of collective, do you all live in the same country, what process do you have for making decisions within the group and for determining content for eIraq?
NP: Unlike projects like Indymedia, EI and eIraq are not “free for all” posting sites which I don’t find that useful due to the uncritical stream of e-noise that these produce. While we accept contributions from new writers, we do have a strict quality control process as both sites seek to calmly and systematically educate people about the realities on the ground, rather than pay lip service to a notion of “democracy” where everyone is speaking simultaneously over everyone else.
The Electronic Intifada has no formal management structure. The four founders make decisions, when needed, based on our common goals and mutual respect. If one person doesn’t like the decision, and the decision was contentious, typically this acts to veto the activity. This rarely happens. Frankly, there’s far too much work to be done for us to be sitting around arguing about details. This is the biggest pitfall that progressive organisations fall into and which we strive to avoid.
EI and eIraq have an organic editorial approach based on trust between people who have worked together for several years and the norms learned from that experience. The editorial team is organic. We do not submit everything to everyone, as we have a common understanding of the kind of material we want to see on there, and human resources are minimal leaving us shying away from bureaucracy as much as possible. Sometimes we work on key pieces together.
eIraq is different from EI in that the site is a joint project between the EI news team and Voices in the Wilderness, the latter an established activist organisation. EI has experience with online news publishing. Voices has experience and people on the ground in Iraq.
As a result, EI has dealt with most of the publishing aspect, and Voices enhanced the content greatly. Ninety percent of what you see on eIraq is added by EI, the remainder - mostly the diaries material, which was always the jewel of the eIraq site - is written and added directly by Voices.
During the war, I was the main editor of eIraq with the help of members of the EI and Voices teams. Today, eIraq/EI co-founder Arjan El Fassed is the primary editor. Other team members work oncontent creation, networking, refining the site, and planning.
PN: What problems/challenges do you face - as frequent “outsiders” - gathering and presenting information on unstable conflict zones?
NP: Palestinians and Iraqis are very hospitable people where foreign guests are concerned so there isn’t that much of a problem. The main issue in all foreign conflicts is having the language skills to speak directly with people there. If you don’t have them, this isolates you from the complexities of the societies in the conflicts.
In Iraq and Palestine, where there is an ongoing conflict, there’s always the danger that you will be targeted. When I lived in Palestine, it was dangerous sometimes. At clashes, Israeli troops would sometimes target the internationals present. And in 1998, following a dispute with my landlady, my home was bulldozed by members of Fatah Tanziim and the Palestinian security forces, who were paid for this service but admitted they were partly motivated by Internet articles I wrote about corruption and human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority, and the payola given to the student wing of Arafat’s Fatah faction at Birzeit University. It was a difficult experience, but very telling of the state of things.
PN: eIraq offers a news syndication service and various background papers, but what do you think eIraq offers international activists and campaigners - including those who work specifically on Iraq, but also the wider peace/antiwar movements - compared to other, more mainstream news and views outlets?
NP: We focus on the most important issue, the realities of daily life for people like yourself and myself. We are not an activist organisation but an online news source. With a strong focus on human rights and development issues, we are archiving an accessible alternative history of war that will help future researchers and activists address the issues that may save lives. Both the Library of Congress and the British Library have added Electronic Iraq to their digital archive, something for which we were pleased.
PN: How is eIraq connected with other groups/projects - not just literally, but also more conceptually. For example, do you feel it is part of a bigger movement which works presenting information in a different way?
NP: We are trying to offer a professional news service with limited resources. We feel that the Internet is a fantastic medium for this type of project because it does not exclude smaller groups with the appropriate skills and dedication from the international discussion about issues such as the US-Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
EI has transformed from a simple media monitoring project to actually becoming the media since its launch in 2001. We realised that it wasn’t enough to be responsive, but that we needed to be proactive and offer models for doing it right. eIraq was launched a couple of years after EI, just before the war in 2003, and thus immediately began to concentrate on supplementary news rather than media analysis as we felt this was the most valuable.
The failure of the US media to explain to the public the scope and effect of US involvement in the Middle East before 9/11 has led a lot of people to alternative news sources. EI and eIraq receive a base-line level of one third of a million visitors a month. We also see surges depending on how hot the issue is for the commercial media. During the war, eIraq received half a million visits in one two week period. During Israel’s massive invasion of the West Bank in March/April 2002, EI saw two-thirds of a million visitors that month.
PN: What do you feel is the value of independent media/media monitoring projects - in general and specifically on the topic of Iraq and the Israel-Palestine situation.
NP: If they’re done well, they empower you to think critically in a sea of media noise. If they don’t have advertisers, there’s no editorial pressure that you find in commercial media. Our basic belief is that if the general public in the Western countries really understood what life was like for Joe and Jane Palestinian, or Joe and Jane Iraqi, the conflict would have a shelf life of ten minutes. We’re trying tobe their window to that reality.
PN: And - of course - what do you feel are the limitations? Particularly in relation to e-elitism
NP: The downside is that the projects will not reach their potential without more investment. We need more people on the ground, budgets for editing, translation, advertising the sites. We are seeking funders who appreciate the general goals of the projects and are happy to support them as is.
e-elitism is a phrase I hadn’t heard before but instinctively understand its meaning. While its certainly true that the North has more access to information technology than the South, and most of the information about the South is found on websites in the North, the kind of people who use the Internet in the North are a key demographic that has considerable power to effect change. It makes sense to leverage the cost-effective nature of Internet publishing and its convenient direct channel to these people as much as possible.
PN: What are your plans for the future - for both eIraq and eIntifada?
NP: In Palestine, we’d like to have one dedicated person for EI in each Palestinian city with a laptop and video camera, uploading regular reports to the site. We’d like to bring the visual appeal and interactivity of both sites to a higher level which is currently unobtainable due to a lack of resources.
Regardless of the limitations we’ve faced with both sites, especially EI which has been going for longer, we have achieved much. EI’s list of milestones [http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article1187.shtml] and regular mainstream media appearances and citations are impressive considering we’re talking about four people working part time on the site with a yearly budget less than the salary of a single CNN researcher.
In the coming months, we will see version 3.0 of EI, which will be a much stronger and better organised website. We hope to cross-syndicate material from a variety of related websites.
With eIraq we’d like to see more people on the ground writing. The problem withIraq compared to Palestine is that the infrastructure has been far more devastated. This impacts accessibility to computers, language skills, etc. All these things have made it much harder to find people to write regularly from on the ground.
eIraq gained a lot of attention during the US-Iraq war as we had the only inde-pendent witnesses in Baghdad who were reporting daily. These things didn’t stop the war, but they’d never been done before, and inspired a number of people who I’m sure will find their own applications for the idea.
We look forward to a day when all people have enough access to information technology to take control of their own narratives, and become the primary media that reports on their lives.
Nigel Parry is a founding member of Electronic Intifada (and eIraq), he works as part of the webteam. Electronic Intifada, http://electronicIntifada.net. Electronic Iraq, http://electronicIraq.net. Peace News can be accessed at http://peacenews.info.