Series Editor Stephen Talbot had an opportunity to catch up with
Sam Kiley, reporter of "Truth and Lies in Baghdad," in a candid
telephone interview just before broadcast. As a former Times
of London Bureau Chief for Africa and the Middle East, Kiley
is no stranger to reporting in repressive environments and conflict
zones. His first assignment to Iraq was in 1998. Find out what
was different this time around, what to make of Saddam's surprising
mass release of prisoners and the "Kafkaesque confusion" of what
to say and not say in Saddam's Iraq.
When you go into a situation like Iraq are you thinking about
the consequences of your reporting? This is a time when the
United States and the United Nations are debating war and peace.
You've brought us back a very provocative story with some new
horrors, public beheadings...
have very strong reservations about the whole American foreign
policy in the Middle East. You know, I'm not interested in feeding
a war machine. But one can't pull one's punches just because
you think that wrong-headed people are going to use your information.
I have mixed views about whether or not it's a good idea [to
invade Iraq]. Yes, it would be great for the people of Iraq
to get rid of Saddam. It'd also be nice to have democracy in
Saudi Arabia...But in a sense that's not my problem. My problem
is to try and do justice to the story.
Iraq is an intense place to drop into. What other kind of reporting
had you done that prepared you for this?
was the Africa bureau chief for the Times [of London] for eight
years. So I covered, in terms of conflicts, the collapse of Mengistu's
regime [in Ethiopia], the Somali famine, the American debacle
in Somalia, the Rwanda and Burundi civil wars, the Angolan civil
war, the civil strife in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia.
I managed to get myself shot in Lesotho.
Really? What happened there?
I just pushed my luck at a roadblock, one roadblock too far,
and a guy shot me, in the arm. Tried to shoot me all over the
place. But I mean, I'm lucky, I managed to drive us out of there.
about the Middle East?
I'd been to Iraq twice in '98 and then two trips this year.
I became the Middle East Bureau Chief for the Times for two
years, so then I covered the intifada and the Israeli withdrawal
from South Lebanon. Iraq is the most restricted environment
I've ever worked in, but in terms of personal safety it was
by no means troublesome.
You're a hardcore war correspondent, Sam.
Well, it's not a word I particularly like, but I am by default.
If you happen to cover places where war's going on then in one
sense you get typecast. Also, any fool can cover a war, really,
so long as you stay alive. You just walk around going, "Christ!"
and then writing it all down. Wars write themselves.
You're a print man. This was your first experience with television.
What was that like?
I thought it was pretty fun. TV's a pretty slow process as you
know, but I really enjoyed it.
many in your crew?
We started with a three-man team in Jordan, then we lost our
cameraman, so Andrew Smith, the producer-director then also
became the cameraman. So in the end it was essentially a two-man
effort from beginning to end.
were in Iraq in 1998. What was different this time?
The situation was markedly different from what it was in '98
because of the Oil-for-Food program. In 1998 there was no question
that sanctions were doing a hell of a lot of damage to perfectly
innocent people. Sanctions continue to very seriously affect
people's well being but it isn't the humanitarian catastrophe
that sanctions were producing back in '98. That was an immediate
and glaring difference.
In your report you go into a hospital and ask whether the U.N.
oil for food program has improved things and you get mixed messages.
You also report that the Iraqi government has suppressed its
own study saying that health conditions actually have improved.
Thus far the government has refused to publish it. But they
don't say so explicitly. It simply goes from one committee to
another and then there'll be endless amounts of excuses as to
why it hasn't yet been published. But in the view of foreign
diplomats in Iraq, it has not been published because it shows
too significant an improvement. They are no longer suffering
shortages and thank God for that.
was interesting about the visit to the hospital and our whole
trip is that when Iraqis don't know the script they get paralyzed.
They know they're supposed to tell foreign journalists that sanctions
are evil -- arguably such sanctions are evil -- but in '98 they
said sanctions were evil because they were killing kids and that
basically doesn't exist any more because they've got access to
the drugs and food. The doctors know they have to complain that
there is malnutrition. But they are also worried that if they
say there's malnutrition they'll be criticizing their government.
So they're locked into this sort of Kafkaesque confusion. You're
damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't.
about the reports of beheadings? What put you on to that story
in the first place?
Doing background reading before going to Iraq these things pop
out, you know, a line here, a line there in human rights reports.
Then when we were talking to exiles living in Jordan, this sort
of story came up. And there was something about it, it was different.
We know Saddam imprisons his enemies. But this was a kind of
new twist in horror. They [the beheadings] happened in the space
of two years. They're not really happening any more so far as
we're aware, but people are still talking about them...
I'm always intrigued by the mechanisms of these things. You
know, if you want to understand an oppressive regime, you've
got to look at the motive behind it. Evil just isn't evil. There
are motives. In Sierra Leone why did the rebels hack off the
hands of all these people? If you take somebody's hands away
in a subsistence environment, you condemn them to a long, slow,
painful, humiliating, agonizing death. It's more horrifying
than being murdered. In Iraq, this beheading thing seemed to
be a way of terrorizing and suppressing the population...News
of the hackings are spread by word of mouth, they're not broadcast
on TV, they're not referred to in the newspapers, but they happen.
And they're done by the Fedayeen Saddam, who have become Iraq's
started your journey in Jordan. An American diplomat was recently
killed there. You describe an atmosphere of fear and intimidation
when you asked people in Jordan about Saddam. Tell us more about
what Jordan is like at the moment.
is a delightful, by Middle Eastern standards, very liberal,
easygoing place. It just has a very nasty neighbor. And there
are 300,000 Iraqis, a good number of whom are spooks and assassins
who work for Saddam who are spying on the others. So Saddam
has a long reach. There've been disappearances and murders of
Iraqi dissidents. It is something that Iraqis live with. The
Jordanian authorities themselves have to tread carefully. They're
not only Iraq's neighbor, they're also Israel's neighbor and
60 percent of their population is Palestinian. Saddam Hussein is to
some Palestinians a big hero because he supports their cause.
You've got this place that is very sandwiched, a pro-Western
country, with a significant part of the population that shares
the ideology of bin Laden, so you've got an endlessly precarious
situation for the Jordanians.
Let me ask you about your style. There's one moment when you're
being herded with all the other reporters through one of these
installations where they may have been trying to make nuclear
weapons. And a guy is shoving you around and you turn to him
and say, "If you push me, I'll break your arm."
[laughs] "Unhand me, sir." I think that's what you're supposed
to say in documentaries, isn't it?
Right. That's more diplomatic. You're a little sharper tongued.
Yeah, I didn't know the camera was on. To be honest, if I'd
known the camera was on I might not have been so open with my
threat. But I don't like being pushed around, especially not
when you're supposed to be treated as guests, you know, what
is this crap?
One of the things that's interesting about your story is you
show what other reporters in Iraq just mention in passing, that
foreign journalists are always under the control of government
not knocking my colleagues for this because it's not them, it's
their organizations, you know, "Don't piss the Iraqis off too
much because you want to be there when the skies over Baghdad
have been illuminated." That means that people don't tend to do
human rights stories. They want to stay in the country. But if
you look at [New York Times correspondent] John Burns's copy, for
example, he slips it in every piece [that minders shadow him].
But as far as my style being quote unquote "aggressive" in this
film, I actually try to use humor more...One of the only ways
to deal with a dictatorship is to laugh at it. Iraqis get precious
few opportunities to do so.
Just after you left Iraq, there was a release of prisoners,
an amazing thing. Saddam lets everybody out. And some start
speaking freely about the horrible prison conditions. There's
even a public protest. What do you make of that?
Several things. A) They're very brave. B) You can be out of
prison but you're not free in Iraq. Iraq is a prison. C) To
some extent one might see this as the first sign that the jersey
might start unraveling.
My personal analysis, for what it's worth, which isn't much,
is that the moment they see gun ships on the horizon the Iraqis
will flip. Nobody in Iraq other than a half-dozen brainwashed
loonies are going to die for Saddam Hussein...
But that's not what people told you on camera in Iraq. They
say they will fight Americans to the death, that they will die
for Saddam, right?
Yeah, well, of course they do. What are they going to say? There
isn't a lot of choice when a government minder is standing by.
Once CNN, the New York Times and others started reporting what
some of the freed prisoners were saying, Iraq announced that
they're going to throw all reporters out.
This is a new script, people [in the Iraqi information ministry]
aren't familiar with it, they don't know where the boundaries
lie...The government says, "Open the prisons," reporters cover
it, then some of the freed prisoners start complaining. "Oh,
shit, now that doesn't reflect very well on us, so we'll kick
the reporters out." Then they say, "Oh, no, well, actually we're
only going to kick some of them out." They've got their knickers
in a twist because they're still trying to control the press.
What are your plans now?
I don't know. I just heard that mercenaries have turned up in
the Ivory Coast, and I know some of them, so I might try to
go and cover that story, but I'll have to see what comes up.
Well, as we say in America, watch your back.
OK. All the best.