WORLD

Iraq’s new paper tiger

Launching a newspaper is tough enough, even without the insurgency

ADNAN R. KHAN September 4 2006
WORLD

Iraq’s new paper tiger

Launching a newspaper is tough enough, even without the insurgency

ADNAN R. KHAN September 4 2006

Iraq’s new paper tiger

WORLD

Launching a newspaper is tough enough, even without the insurgency

ADNAN R. KHAN

A new voice has entered the media fray in Iraq, one with a Canadian twist. Soma, meaning “perspective” in Kurdish, is a biweekly English-language digest published out of Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s headed by a Canadian whose vision is to transform journalism in Iraq. And, says editor and founder Tanya Goudsouzian, “It’s been a challenge.” Indeed. Goudsouzian is a 29year-old Montreal native of Armenian descent who speaks no Kurdish and only very basic Arabic. She launched the paper in February 2006 with the help of Hiro Ibrahim Ahmad, the wife of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. And the road to her cramped office in Sulaymaniyah, a city 275 km north of Baghdad and the regional headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the political party headed by Talabani, has been anything but smooth.

After graduating from McGill in 1998, Goudsouzian moved to Washington to work at a magazine focusing on Middle Eastern issues. She left in 2000, moving to Cairo, then landing a staff position at Gulf News in Dubai. She covered Afghanistan and Iraq, where she met Ahmad, who worked in journalism before her husband became the Iraqi leader. Since its launch, Soma has been pumping out 4,000 issues every two weeks, with website traffic surpassing 100,000 hits. Also remarkable is the fact that it is distributed nationally. “We print out of Baghdad,” says Goudsouzian. “Every issue has to be sent south for printing and distribution and then issues have to be flown back to Kurdistan. The main reason we send the paper south is I want it to have a national appeal. It’s geared for the English-speak-

ing community and English-speaking Iraqis throughout Iraq, not just Kurdistan.”

Soma must contend with a journalistic mindset still firmly rooted in the Baathist era. For the most part, the Iraqi media remains a mouthpiece for those in power, only now there are more mouths. In Kurdistan, Iraq’s most democratized region, only one of dozens of publications is fully independent: the weekly Hawlati. And, says its editor, Twana Osman, 31, “There are certain subjects you just can’t touch. We’ve had journalists arrested for criticizing the government, for example. I’ve been formally charged for criticizing the Kurdish regional prime minister.”

Soma has been pigeonholed as a PUK organ, Goudsouzian complains. “I know it sounds like a contradiction, the wife of the president funding a newspaper,” she says, “but Hiro is genuinely interested in a free press.” There are, after all, very few people with money in Iraq who are not associated with a party. “So if you receive funding at all,” Goudsouzian says, “it’s likely you’re receiving it from someone with party affiliations.”

Soma does not consider itself a political watchdog. Goudsouzian admits she tries to avoid taboo subjects, such as censuring certain powerful individuals. “I don’t want it to be filled with yellow news-style personal attacks,” she says, noting that tendency in other publications. “I want to change things. I take young journalists to interviews so they see how it should be done. I’m training these guys on how to report, how to construct a story.” Injecting professionalism into an underdeveloped journalistic community is idealistic, and difficult. But, Goudsouzian says, “You’re taking part in the rebuilding of a civilization. You have to be an idealist or you’d go nuts. I don’t plan on being here forever. But I plan on leaving my mark.” M