Afrah Shawqi, Paris
In December 2016, Iraqi journalist Afrah Shawqi was taken from her Baghdad home by a group of armed men. They accused her of writing a story they found offensive and kept her captive for over a week, while her disappearance made international headlines. She was eventually released and now lives in France.
I still remember the first story I ever had published. It was in the Iraqi newspaper, Al Jumhuriya, where many of my current colleagues also started their careers. I remember my dream of wanting to see my name next to those of great writers and journalists, whose work I read with such joy.
Back then, I didn’t even get a proper salary. I just wanted to learn and I had to ask for money from my mother, who would always ask me why nobody was paying me for my work.
My older brother was against me working as a journalist and I spent months campaigning so he would allow me to. I asked friends to mediate and he finally agreed, under certain conditions he set.
My golden opportunity came when I began freelancing for Alif Ba magazine at the end of 1998. I was careful when I first started working for them but my caution faded thanks to the way the staff there helped me so much. I still remember my second investigative report, about the importance of the internet and how the people of Iraq had been deprived of this service! The press secretary at the time called me for a meeting and asked me to modify the story, advising me against taking such an accusatory tone. “We all started off as enthusiastic as you are but this attitude isn’t useful in the Iraqi media today,” he told me back then.
There were a lot of difficulties working during the [Saddam Hussein] era. Probably the worst things were the lack of publications to write for and the lack of money. Many of my colleagues preferred to stay at home and only the truly dedicated would work for so little money and even less gratitude.
There was not much internet available in Iraq at the time so a lot of the work was slow and labour intensive. We journalists would gather information by going to see interviewees on foot or going by bus, then we’d return to the office to write and revise our stories until the evening. We worked like this so that our reports could be published the following day.
I’ve been through a lot of tough times in this business but for me the most important thing is that I was able to do this work – I had always dreamed of being a journalist . Even if I could go back in time, even knowing what I know now, I would still choose the same career path again.
The media scene is like a vast sea and we keep learning new ways to swim in it. No matter how old we are, we journalists still provide a way for the Iraqi people to express themselves. We can help them say what they want, especially the poor and marginalized people – and it is in this way, by helping the powerless hold the powerful to account, that we will win our audience.