After years spent covering the war in Iraq for the Washington Post, American journalist Jackie Spinner decided she wanted to improve journalism in the country. So last year, she formed a newspaper in Kurdistan -- a region, she points out, without a Bill of Rights or laws to protect press freedom.
Spinner now serves as the faculty adviser for The AUI-S Voice, the first independent student newspaper in Iraq since 2003 when Saddam Hussein was ousted. The weekly newspaper is based at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUI-S), established in October 2007. The language of instruction is English.
Spinner developed the newspaper from the ground up. In April 2009, she registered the publication with the Kurdistan Regional Government and began creating the organizational framework for the publication. On January 31, the first issue was published.
Along the way, Spinner received enthusiastic assistance from the university's administration. After she polled newspapers in the United States to determine technology needs for a start-up, the university purchased equipment. When Spinner began leading Saturday workshops to teach journalism basics to the new staff, the university bused off-campus students to the class. Administrators also provide a driver to pick up the newspapers after printing. "Everyone has gone out of their way to make certain that this paper succeeds and survives," Spinner said.
The administration also supports the newspaper financially without exercising editorial control. Despite the lack of student press laws in the region and the private nature of the University, the administration refuses the right to prior restraint, which would permit them to view and change the newspaper before publication.
“I have tremendous respect for [the administration]," Spinner said, "for not asking to see the newspaper before it publishes and for engaging with the newspaper, such as by writing letters to the editor."
Reporter turned copy editor Qusay Muneer calls the newspaper a "mirror" of what students want and need. "Since it’s completely independent," he said, "students can write about whatever they think is wrong and ask the people responsible to fix the problem without being afraid of anything."
For most students, the newspaper is the first glimpse of an independent media in a region known for persecuting journalists. While they may have a theoretical idea about a free press, Spinner said most don't understand what it means to be free and independent beyond an ideal.
Spinner teaches the importance of independence to her students in weekly workshops. And the staff is growing -- it is now made up of 45 students.
"Many students are eager and willing to work for the Voice voluntarily," said Hawkar Saeed, a Voice video reporter. "The independency of the newspaper is the main point [that will] make it continue."
(At left: Spinner helps Voice reporter Miran Fattah report on a soccer match between AUI-S and Karbala University.)
The biggest challenge for the staff, Spinner said, is reporting in English. AUI-S and the Voice attract Iraqis from all over the country, many who speak English as a second language. Students are native speakers of Arabic, Kurdish, Turkoman and Farsi, she said, and many have just learned to speak and write in English.
But the diversity is a strength, said photographer Hazhar Ahmed. "We get students from different parts of Iraq and work as a team."
With nine issues to date, the Voice continues to expand. The staff recently adopted the use of SoundSlides to create multi-media reports and purchased a studio microphone for students to record audio. They also initiated a beat system for coverage of information technology, administration policy, sports, student affairs and other campus activities.
If the staff has any say, the Voice will continue its expansion within and beyond the walls of AUI-S, said reporter Kurdistan Fatih. She hopes to see the newspaper print two issues a week.
"I want it to represent the free voice of independent students," Fatih said, "and work on introducing AUI-S to the whole world."
For more information, go to www.auisvoice.org/