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memri
November 21, 2019 No.
1487

The Iraqi Newspaper 'Tuktuk' – The Voice Of The Demonstrators At Baghdad's Tahrir Square, In The Shadow Of Censorship And Shutdowns Of Access To Internet

As the protests in Iraq against the government and the widespread corruption in the country that began in early October 2019 and escalated on October 25,[1] continue to gain momentum, some Iraqi journalists have launched a newspaper called Tuktuk to cover them. Based at the demonstrations' center, Baghdad's Tahrir Square, the newspaper covers protest events there and throughout the country, and is distributed among the demonstrators. The newspaper meets the protestors' acute need to quickly obtain reliable information about demonstrations, against the backdrop of the difficulties posed by shutdowns of access to the Internet and the slanted reporting by official Iraqi media.

According to reports, the paper has six editors, headed by journalist and poet Ahmad 'Abd Al-Hussein, who is close to the Sadrist movement and has for years supported protests against government corruption in Iraq.[2]

The newspaper is called Tuktuk because of the vital role the young drivers of these three-wheeled motorized rickshaws play in the protests. They use their vehicles as ambulances to transport wounded protestors to hospitals and help bring food, water, and medicines to the protestors.[3] These young drivers, who have become a symbol of the Tahrir Square protests, are also in charge of distributing copies of the newspaper at demonstrations.[4]

Several issues of the paper have been published since the beginning of November 2019. The first issue, printed and distributed on November 4, 2019, featured an editorial explaining why the Iraqi people were rising up against the repression and the harsh socioeconomic conditions in the country, primarily in light of the widespread corruption and of the involvement of Iran and its militias in Iraq. Its front page featured a "Road Map to Save Iraq," enumerating the demonstrators' demands for a better future for their county, including the government's immediate resignation and criteria for electing public officials to senior posts.


Front page of the first issue of Tuktuk (Source: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, November 5, 2019)

It should be noted that in addition to the newspaper, the demonstrators have set up an improvised "radio station" in Tahrir Square, called "Radio We Want Our Homeland," which consists of a public address system broadcasting news reports in the square and its surroundings. Other media outlets in Iraq are also publishing special supplements covering the protests. 

This paper will review reports on the launch of Tuktuk and the Tahrir Square "radio station," and on the content and messages they are disseminating:

One Of Tuktuk's Editors Is Journalist And Poet Ahmad 'Abd Al-Hussein, Who Is Close To Muqtada Al-Sadr

As noted, the newspaper is called Tuktuk because of the prominent role played by the young drivers of these vehicles in transporting wounded and killed protestors and in bringing equipment and supplies to the demonstrators. Tuktuk's editorial staff wrote in the first issue: "This is the first issue of our newspaper, the protestors' newspaper, written, edited, and distributed at the Tahrir protest square [in Baghdad]. We have called it Tuktuk in honor of the vehicle of the poor that has become a symbol of this revolution, and in appreciation of the role played by the owners of the mythological tuktuk in transporting the wounded and the martyrs from the square, which is an actual arena of war.

"Every day, as the tyrants' shells fall on the demonstrators' heads, and everyone seeks shelter from the [tear?] gas canisters aimed at their heads, only the tuktuk driver rushes, risking his life, to find where the bomb landed and hurry to help the wounded or evacuate the martyr. On days when the regime and its militias deploy Iraqi and Iranian snipers on the rooftops of homes, it is only natural for the protestors to hide wherever they can, for fear of the sectarian snipers [apparently a reference to snipers from the Shi'ite Hashd Al-Sha'bi (PMU)] lying in wait for them... But the impoverished young tuktuk driver who owns nothing in the world but his vehicle remains in the square, exposing himself to the danger of the snipers and ready to sacrifice his life for his brothers. Thus, we have named this newspaper Tuktuk, out of loyalty to these honorable young people who have become a symbol of the Iraqi revolution."[5]


Tuktuk drivers transport coffins of demonstrators killed at protests (Source: Facebook.com/102957754489469, November 4, 2019)


Tuktuks at the heart of the protests (Source: Facebook.com/102957754489469, November 4, 2019)

As stated, Tuktuk has six editors, headed by journalist and poet Ahmad 'Abd Al-Hussein, a prominent protest activist who is close to Muqtada Al-Sadr and his supporters[6] and is known for supporting protests against state corruption in Iraq. In July 2018 he was fired from his job at the Iraqi Media Network[7] for a Facebook post supporting anti-government protests and criticizing the prime minister and other officials for suppressing demonstrations.[8] These days he frequently visits Tahrir Square and posts photos of himself with the protesters on his Facebook page.[9] On the newspaper's distribution, Al-Hussein said: "This is a daily newspaper, and we aspire for it to reach the demonstrators regularly... Despite the limited means, we have produced an eight-page newspaper, and we seek to [make heard] a voice that is close to the voice of the people, particularly since we know that an entire life is taking place at Tahrir Square."[10]

Iraqi journalist Ahmad Al-Sheikh Majid, described in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat as "one of the people who help distribute and edit the newspaper," said: "Our aim [with Tuktuk] is to cover and document all the protest activity at Tahrir Square, first and foremost the activity and heroic deeds of the young tuktuk [drivers]." He added that the newspaper also includes reports on protests across Iraq and op-ed columns by well-known Iraqi writers focusing on the protests. Two thousand copies of the first issue of the newspaper were printed thanks to private donors and were distributed free of charge at Tahrir Square, he said, noting that the newspaper would continue to be published until the protests stopped and the protestors' goals were achieved.[11]


Ahmad 'Abd Al-Hussein (right) with Muqtada Al-Sadr (Source: 1001iraqithoughts.com, August 8, 2016)

The London-based daily Al-Arab quoted Iraqi activist 'Abdallah Al-Sa'di as saying that the printing house had donated the printing of hundreds of copies of the newspaper, and that the writers of the op-eds and news items were young activists. Some reports even stated that the tuktuk drivers themselves were funding the printing of the paper.[12]

In addition to Tuktuk's distribution at Tahrir Square, protest activists opened a Facebook page titled "Tuktuk Heroes" to publish reports, photos, video clips, and updates from the field, as well as content about political aspects of the protests. 


The "Tuktuk Heroes" Facebook page (Source: Facebook.com/102957754489469)


Front page of Tuktuk's November 19, 2019 issue: "October Protesters Draw Their Position: No to America and Israel, No to Saudi Arabia and Iran (Source: Facebook.com/ahmadahussein, November 19, 2019)

The "Road Map To Save Iraq": Demands For A New Government Of Officials With Clean Hands, Restoring The Looted Public Funds

The first page of Tuktuk's first issue, as noted, included an article titled "Road Map to Save Iraq" presenting the protestors' 10 demands: a) the immediate resignation of the government; b) the establishment of a transitional government to last three months only, to comprise independent figures with clean hands with no history of party activism; c) election law changes; d) the establishment of an independent election commission; e) the implementation of the Parties Law in order to expose parties' sources of funding, and a ban on parties' possession of weapons[13]; f) new elections under UN oversight; g) constitutional amendments within three months and the elimination of the provincial and municipal councils; h) the transitional government's and the eventual new permanent government's commitment to a fair investigation into the elements and individuals behind the killing of demonstrators, just trials for them, and damages for the families of the killed and wounded; i) the Supreme Judicial Council's commitment to investigate the corruption among current senior and other government officials; and j) the restoration of the looted public funds.

The article concluded: "This road map sets out fundamental steps that will save our country and will remove from us the corruption of the political class that rules us. If it is accepted by the sons of our Iraqi people, we will defend it in the protest arenas until we are victorious."[14]

Tuktuk Editorial: The Grapes Of Wrath Against The Regime's Corruption And Support For Iran Have Ripened; The Uprising's Headline Is Bringing Down The Regime

The editorial of Tuktuk's first issue, with the byline "Abu Al-Tuktuk," was titled "'Impossible' Is Not Iraqi [Lexicon]". It too reflected the protestors' sentiments and demands, including their rage at the regime's corruption and its loyalty to Iran. It stated:

"Apparently, Iraq's resurrection has finally come – the time of the ripening of the grapes of wrath that Iraq has been accumulating for the past 16 years, during which any fragment of hope igniting the spirit of the Iraqi [citizen] has evaporated along with the fall of the statue [of Saddam Hussein] in Al-Firdos Square in 2003. During [this time period], between Firdos Square and Tahrir Square, [the experience of the] oppressed, despised, and vulnerable Iraqi has continued, as every morning he opened his eyes to poverty, unemployment, corruption, lack of [essential] services, and loss of control over the armed forces, which are outside the state's framework – because nothing is left of the state except for its name...

"For many years, we have watched as the corrupt [Iraqi] politicians stole [public funds] without anyone demanding an accounting; gave a third of Iraq as a gift to ISIS without anyone saying a thing; led 1,700 young Iraqis to the slaughter in [Camp] Speicher and Al-Saqlawiyah[15] without any representative of the people opposing it; gave billions of dollars to our dear neighbor Iran to strengthen its economy, just as it gave billions to the Syrian dictator... The corruption closed the horizons to the Iraqis, to the point where the Iraqis' name became a synonym for immigration, and our young people scattered all over the world as refugees, or as those who go into the sea with hopes of reaching the European paradise. Oh, how many of the fruit of the Iraqi women's wombs have been swallowed up by the sea before they reached their promised Eden.

"Within a few years, the young Iraqis were committing suicide at an unprecedented rate that we had never known even in the days of the regime of the criminal Saddam Hussein... All this is accompanied by mendacious religious campaigns run by the [Shi'ite] militias [i.e. the Hashd Al-Sha'abi], that speak in the name of Allah... and have begun demanding that young men account for what they wear, eat, and drink, and are harassing them at universities and in [public] parks for fear that they might be meeting a female friend or colleague and that the devil will join them...

"This stifling atmosphere has necessarily led to an inevitable explosion. Iraq's young people have exploded [in protests], upon learning that they cannot escape from this nightmare if they do not expel the barbarians [who are obstructing] their path to freedom, without which there is no life...

"Curative drugs like elections have no impact on the bodies of the young Iraqi citizens. Things have become clear, and the [citizens'] demand has become simple, easy, and clear: To change everything – everything! – and to expel all aspects that symbolize their humiliation. Bringing down the regime is the headline of this uprising, and its only standard, under which all the recent demands will be actualized. The young Iraqis who once asked for the impossible are today realistic.

"Blessed is the spirit of the young people that destroys the homes of the tyrants and disturbs their rest. All honor to the martyrs of the glorious October revolution."[16] 


Tuktuk article headlined "Why the Constitution Needs to Be Changed" (Source: Nasnews.com, November 4, 2019)

Protest Activists Launch Other Media Outlets – "Radio Station," Newspaper Supplements Covering The Protests

Tuktuk is not the only publication launched by protest activists; other Iraqi media organizations have published special issues and supplements focusing on the protests. For example, the Al-Mada Foundation for Media, Culture, and Art, an Iraqi media group with newspapers, magazines, a radio station, a TV channel, and other outlets, started a free daily supplement of the Al-Mada newspaper, called The Protest, presenting demonstrators' stories and shedding light on their activity. Ali Hussein, a writer for the Al-Mada newspaper, said that the supplement was distributed in Baghdad and in most of Iraq's provinces..."[17]

The independent Iraqi daily New Morning published a supplement of photos of the protests and commentary on them. Also, journalist 'Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Sa'di started a newspaper called October 25, which included reports from the protests, printing and distributing several issues. Another publication, Uprising, also covers the protests.[18]


Distributing the Protest supplement to demonstrators (Source: Facebook.com/almada.foundation, November 10, 2019)

Also as noted, protest activists at Tahrir Square began making public announcements in the framework of their "radio station." One of these activists said that the "station was called 'Radio "We Want Our Homeland,"' and that its messages were being conveyed via a public address system in the square and in nearby areas. He added that in the next few days, its operators would try to obtain a radio frequency in Baghdad to begin actual broadcasting, and would also open an official Facebook page for the station to facilitate its communication with its audience.[19] 

Radio We Want Our Homeland's first announcement stated: "In a drawn-out minute and endless moment in the square, that will never be forgotten by the heart of any Iraqi, in the name of the voice of over 300 martyrs, in the name of the weeping of over 300 mothers, in the name of the voices of thousands of friends, in the name of their tears, in the name of... the voices of the millions who took [to the streets] to obtain their rights... in the name of the voice of the homeland, in the name of the meaning of the homeland, in the name of its paths of peace – we hereby announce the inauguration of the demonstrators' radio, 'Radio Homeland,' 'Radio We Want Our Homeland.'"[20]

The Iraqi Street Reacts To Tuktuk And Radio 'We Want Our Homeland'

The founding of Tuktuk and Radio "We Want Our Homeland" in Tahrir Square was met with enthusiasm in the Iraqi street. People saw these media as more reliable than the existing media, and as a solution to the shutdowns of access to the Internet in the country. For example, Iraqi activist Mohannad Al-Jabari told the Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily that Tuktuk constituted an alternative media outlet when the government cut off access to the Internet, and that copies of the newspaper were also sent to Kurdistan by air or taxi so that the world would see photos of the protests.[21] Baghdad resident Sajid 'Ali likewise said: "When they cut off the Internet, and when they disrupt phone communications, we are very concerned about the [situation of the] demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the situation in all of Baghdad. The 'radio' operated by the demonstrators themselves provides us around the clock with information about what is happening, even if the government cuts off the electricity, Internet access, and media."[22]

Civil society activist Raba Al-Salehi said: "The publication of the newspaper and the establishment of the special demonstrators' radio is a huge accomplishment, in light of the simple personal efforts of the activists and demonstrators in Tahrir Square. They constitute a credible platform for obtaining accurate reports – not like the Iraqi media, that has become a real farce... Overall, the Iraqis do not trust the government media, and therefore the newspaper and the 'radio' were launched at this very appropriate time."[23]

Another civil society activist, Hussam Al-'Ameri, said: "Honestly, we do not trust the Iraqi media, since the Iraqi journalists are politically biased. This is because they belong to parties, or they are subject to government pressure, and therefore they do not write truthful reports and do not cover the government repression that we are experiencing. This newspaper [Tuktuk] will be the beginning of an independent media and journalistic initiative, to be run by young, independent Iraqi demonstrators to publish real reports and content free of government pressure and political bias, completely neutral and with high credibility."[24]


Iraqi demonstrator holds up a copy of Tuktuk (Source: Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, London, November 6, 2019)

 

* C. Meital is a research fellow at MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel.

 

 


[1] On October 25, a substantial wave of protests broke out across Iraq, and led to violent clashes with security forces.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 5, 2019.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 5, 2019; Alarabiya.net, October 8, 2019.

[4] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 5, 2019.

[5] Mubasher.aljazeera.net, November 5, 2019.

[6] 1001iraqithoughts.com, August 8, 2015; Al-Arab (London), October 20, 2019.

[7] The Iraqi Media Network includes radio stations, television channels, among them Al-Iraqiya, and the bimonthly magazine Al-Shabaka

[8] Facebook.com/ahmadahussein, July 22, 2019; Thebaghdadpost.com/ar, July 25, 2018. After publishing the post Al-Hussein was required to sign a document promising to refrain from insulting state officials. He refused and was fired from his post as deputy-editor of the Al-Shabaka magazine (ultrasawt.com, July 29, 2019).

[9] Facebook.com/ahmadahussein.

[10] Raseef22.com, November 8, 2019.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 5, 2019.

[12] Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Al-Arab (London), November 5, 2019.

[13] These appear to be aimed against the Shi'ite Hashd Al-Sha'bi militias, which have representation in the Iraqi Parliament.

[14] Yesiraq.com, November 4, 2019.

[15] A reference to ISIS's 2014 massacres of Iraqi soldiers at Camp Speicher in Tikrit and in the Al-Saqlawiya area, north of Falluja.

[16] Mubasher.aljazeera.net, November 5, 2019.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 12, 2019.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 11, 2019.

[19] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), November 5, 2019.

[20] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 6, 2019.

[21] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 6, 2019.

[22] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 6, 2019.

[23] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 6, 2019.

[24] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), November 6, 2019.