Weblogs from Baghdad
Journalists Cecile Landman and Jo van der Spek have succeeded in providing an alternative source of news from war-torn Iraq through their website 'Streamtime.org'.
"I got home yesterday to find that a car-bomb [had] exploded just couple of hours before, about one hundred meters away from our house," writes Khalid Jarrar, a final-year engineering student in Baghdad. "I entered the house and saw the pieces of glass and decorations on the ground...'Not again!' I told myself.

Khalid's graphic account of daily life in Iraq under American occupation is just one of more than 100 blogs to be found through the website "Streamtime.org", run by Cecile Landman and Jo van der Spek. The website describes itself as a 'loose network' of media activists dedicated to assisting local media to get connected.

It is a gesture not gone unappreciated by the Iraqis, as Khalid Jarrar explains: "Through blogging I discovered that I had the opportunity to tell the world what I think, as an Iraqi, and what is going on the ground, far from what the biased media was broadcasting to the world at that time. There isn't any censorship, and this is the most important thing that makes blogs important and makes people around the world interested in reading them, because they come directly from the source."

Indeed, the blogs from Iraq provide a unique insight not to be found in the mainstream Western media. Revelations abound. While some blogs criticise American military operations, others offer highly personal insights and explanations for the events in Iraq.

Although most of the blogs are written by Iraqis, some are maintained anonymously by American military personnel stationed in Iraq. Most are in English.

One young woman, writing under the pseudonym of 'River', describes the 'Green Zone', where the American military have their headquarters. She writes: "While Baghdad seems to be falling apart in so many ways with roads broken and pitted, buildings blasted and burnt out and residential areas often swimming in sewage, the Green Zone is flourishing. The walls surrounding restricted areas housing Americans and Puppets have gotten higher - as if vying with the tallest of date palms for height. The concrete reinforcements and roadblocks designed to slow and impede traffic are now a part of everyday scenery- the road, the trees, the shops, the earth, the sky. and the ugly concrete slabs sometimes wound insidiously with barbed wire.

"A friend who recently got involved working with an Iraqi subcontractor who takes projects inside of the Green Zone explained that it was more than that. The Green Zone, he told us, is a city in itself. He came back awed, and more than a little bit upset. He talked of designs and plans being made for everything from the future US Embassy and the housing complex that will surround it, to restaurants, shops, fitness centers, gasoline stations, constant electricity and water - a virtual country inside of a country with its own rules, regulations and government. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Republic of the Green Zone, also known as the Green Republic."

"The concept [of the website] is to facilitate and harness communication between migrants and their homeland," says Van der Spek. "Our aim is not to do it for them but to hand over the skills and the tools [for them to do it themselves] and make it a DIY self-managed project.

"Streamtime also tries to focus on art, especially poetry," he adds. "Here in Amsterdam there is a big scene for Iraqi artists."

The website also offers opportunities for streaming audio content. Last October Van Der Spek and Landman staged a poetry afternoon with Iraqi poets in Amsterdam, and this was streamed via the Internet to Iraq. Van Der Spek also travelled to 'Merbed', an annual Poetry Festival in Basra, in the south of Iraq, and material from that, was also made available through the website.

Van Der Spek and Landman see the emphasis on poetry as a practical way to enable people to get involved, as it is something less directly political. Iraqis, through their years of experience under Sadam's rule, are wary of anything overtly political.

Van der Spek has a long experience with working with alternative media. In the 1980s he was involved with 'Bluf', a magazine for Amsterdam's squatter community. Later, he became involved with the independent radio station B92, based in Belgrade, which was closed down by the authorities in 1999.

Following on from this, he had the idea of establishing similar community radio projects in Afghanistan, but these turned out to be very difficult to realise, so his attention switched to Iraq. "Afghanistan was bombed back to the Middle Ages, whereas in Iraq, there were a lot of people - engineers for instance - who had a level of education not comparable at all to Afghanistan.

"It is actually quite difficult to work with political refugees," says Van der Spek. "Iraqis are targeted by very many different agencies and these experiences are not very comfortable for them. So there is already distrust towards this kind of intervention."

The Streamtime project received some funding from the Dutch non-governmental organisation HIVOS, enough to pay for several trips to Iraq. Van der Spek has had a few brushes with the authorities there. "The banks of the Tigris are a military zone and when I tried to take pictures of it my camera was confiscated. Luckily I was able to convince them to give the camera back by deleting the pictures."

"I then had this idea of making a daily digest monitoring the blogs made by individuals about Iraq, and that's where Cecile [Landman] came in," says Van der Spek.

Landman, with a background in investigative journalism, also has a long career working with the independent media sector.

"I'm really concentrating on developing the network," Landman explains. "I have quite a lot of [media] contacts within Iraq but also with other bloggers. If you look at the Iraqi media it is like an empty box. People have to come up with things. It [the media] is no good without content. The world is full of empty boxes.

"A blog is a very personal outlet and has revolutionised the way we get information, but sometimes I get the feeling I am dealing with ghosts. After emailing back and forth, after a while, I understand who I can take seriously and who I can't.

"The Iraqi bloggers are mainly secular; they study and learn English. They were enclosed in an isolated society and now they want to reach out to other young people. They want to get in touch with the West."

"The soldier bloggers generally don't log in under their own names, and when they get discovered, or identified by Iraqis, they will start a blog under a new name."

Streamtime also maintains links to blogs in neighbouring parts of the world where strife and censorship have made it difficult to obtain real news, for instance Syria, Iran and the Lebanon.

"Ideally we want to create an underground network combining all the new media," says Van der Spek. "There are few stories from the ground written by Iraqis, and that's the basic aim." "We've been careful not to promise too much," says Van der Spek. "We're just a bunch of individuals - networked media activists - that extend the hand of friendship - which they [the Iraqi people] can shake if they like."

A version of this story was first published in 'Amsterdam Weekly' in June 2005.

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