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|You Asked Rageh Omaar|
"We had to try to get our news on air without getting people into trouble"
BBC, May 2003
Rageh Omaar rose to prominence as the BBC's man in Baghdad throughout the conflict in Iraq.
For three months he reported the scene in the beleaguered capital to almost 90% of the British public on either BBC bulletins or News 24, despatches that were also syndicated widely abroad.
He developed a significant fan base in the process. The New York Post dubbed him the Scud Stud, while Viz magazine dedicated its latest issue to "Britain's best-loved bullet-dodging dreamboat". A website was also inundated with orders for T-shirts bearing his image.
But, despite the popularity, how did the war affect him personally and those around him?
Peter Gould: Hello and welcome to this BBC Interactive forum. If you followed news coverage of the war in Iraq, you will probably have seen or heard our guest today, the BBC correspondent in Baghdad during the conflict, Rageh Omaar. For three months Rageh reported on developments in the Iraqi capital in conditions difficult for any foreign correspondent. His reports became a regular feature on news bulletins in the UK and around the world. Today he is with us in London to answer your questions about what it was like as a journalist to cover the war and on a more personal level to be in the midst of such extraordinary events.
Rageh, welcome to our studio here in London today. A lot of questions from people - many of them about the difficulties involved in reporting a conflict like this from Baghdad. The first e-mail is from Antonio Wuttke, Brazil: Were your reports from Baghdad monitored by the Iraqis? And were you in any way censored?
Rageh Omaar: There was no formal censorship - on the very first day of the war, I think that was March 20th after the first night of air strikes, the authorities said there was going to be censorship, as there was during the first Gulf War and we'd have to present our reports to be viewed before they were sent through the satellite and we had to do that. But after that incident, I didn't show any of my reports to any Iraqi official. They were filmed by BBC cameramen, they were edited by BBC editors and they were transmitted on a BBC satellite and no Iraqi official sat over my shoulder and said, take those pictures out and change that script. So no, there was no formal censorship as such. Censorship came in more subtle forms.
Peter Gould: To what extent were you prevented from moving around Baghdad?
Rageh Omaar: That was definitely controlled. It was all about access of freedom of movement. Obviously, if we were going in our car by ourselves to any areas we couldn't leave the hotel by ourselves without notifying the Iraqis. If we wanted to go to areas that had been bombed or official government sites or military camps - they were organized in large buses and journalists from all over the world were taken there. However, because we were the BBC and obviously the major international broadcaster there - broadcasting on television, radio, internet etc. - we had more power and influence. And there were times when said - well we don't want to go on the bus, we want to take our own car and go to the site and the Iraqi officials said yes and obviously we'd come back by our own route through the rest of Baghdad which was very useful journalistically. They clamped down at the end on this kind of thing though.
Peter Gould: Nick Church, UK asks: Videophones played a huge part in the last conflict. With people better informed of the situation and dramas as they unfold, how do you think that technology has changed war reporting?
Rageh Omaar: I think it's changed it dramatically - for the better in many cases but in certain scenarios, I think for journalists, heightening the level of risk potentially. Videophones did change the nature of war reporting, certainly from Afghanistan - they played a major role here but not to a huge extent. Mobile satellite phones - they are like mobile phones but you can broadcast on them switching them on and you can go live. It came in very useful the day famously when the statue fell - I was broadcasting on a mobile phone, wandering around the whole square.
But it just means that you're reporting events live as they happen with minimal equipment and there's a greater pressure for journalists, I think, increasingly as soon as someone happens go live, get the videophone up, get the satellite phone up, which may not always be advisable, depending on the situation. I think as technology moves forward, giving the ability to cover wars in an immediate sense, the importance of experience of people in these situations is, I think, more crucial.
Peter Gould: Well the technology, as you say, does make it easy for you in one sense to broadcast instantly with perhaps some of the attendant problems of that. But also in a sense doesn't that make it harder for people like the authorities in Baghdad to censor you?
Rageh Omaar: Absolutely it does. We've had equipment that allows us to do live broadcasting for someone but they've been bulky and heavy. But now you can just go live from a tiny little phone that you can hide wherever you like.
It was interesting, we were banned from having satellite phones of any description in our hotel by the Iraqi authorities because all journalists were forced to work from the Ministry of Information. We all argued with the authorities there, saying this was an insane decision - the Ministry of Information as well as all other Iraqi state buildings was going to be bombed and we would not stay there after dark because night time was the worst time. So we would all take our equipment, leave the Ministry of Information by 4 - 5 o'clock when it was dusk and go back to our hotels. Now obviously we had to continue broadcasting but there would be raids in the hotel rooms - you'd be broadcasting live, there'd be a knock on the door that you didn't recognise or weren't expecting and suddenly in mid-air you had to pack up your equipment, throw it under the bed and disguise it. But these were much smaller pieces of gear that made it much harder to censor journalists.
Peter Gould: An e-mail from Faysal, Somalia: I would like to ask about the fatal shelling of the Baghdad hotel housing the western press and the killing of the Al-Jazeera reporter. What was going through your mind as you were being fired upon by US forces? Do you accept that the Americans were only returning fire?
Rageh Omaar: What was going through my mind, was first of all where was this fire coming from. I was just about to broadcast - I was actually putting my earpiece in when the shell hit the Palestine Hotel directly in the room used by Reuters Television. Simultaneously, two BBC cameramen, were filming from the balcony of the hotel, filming the US tank firing on the offices of Abu Dhabi television - I didn't know that at the time - I was at the other end.
Initially, I thought maybe this was an Iraqi missile but then it became quite clear that it was not. The American commander said that they thought they were coming under sniper fire and mortar fire from the Palestine Hotel where the western journalists were and the offices of Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi Television were. But all the cameramen that were filming at the time - and I was there, you couldn't hear any fire - looking back through the tapes, there absolutely no audio or sound of sniper fire. So whether it was a tragic mistake or anything more than that, it's very hard to say. But three journalists lost their lives out there and quite a few others were wounded.
Peter Gould: Yes, it was a tragic incident. Following on from that a question from James in the United Arab Emirates: After the hotel was fired upon, I saw you on Fox news very clearly and you were running? Were you scared?
Rageh Omaar: Of course, yes, I was very scared. I remember I hit the deck as soon as the shell landed and there was a small sprinkling of debris - the Reuters office was on the 15th floor. I ran along with four other colleagues up to the hotel to try and help administer any kind of first aid to the Reuters cameraman, but, I think, tragically he was already dead as soon as I arrived.
Peter Gould: Martin Cobb, Australia asks: People have compared the Baghdad statue toppling to the fall of the Berlin Wall. How would you, with hindsight, now describe that particular moment of the war?
Rageh Omaar: I think it was definitive in the sense that here was the one image that seemed to encapsulate the fact that Saddam and the Iraqi government had fallen that day. What it represented was the fact that American forces had strategic control of the heart of Baghdad and the image of the statue falling down, encapsulated that moment. It's risky and wrong to try and compare other iconic images of world events to each other - Berlin Wall versus Saddam's statue falling, versus whatever else. We all remember that young man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, for example. But on that day, the end of Saddam's control of Baghdad was marked by the image of the statue falling captured by the world's cameras, who happened to be there because the statue was in the square opposite their hotel.
Peter Gould: Yes, it is interesting how most conflicts seem to end up with one defining image, which may have been captured, as you say, purely by accident because the cameras were there.
Rageh Omaar: Absolutely. I think it is also interesting to add because I've had a lot of other e-mails from people saying - look, there was only 200 - 300 people present and it wasn't a huge affair. That is true, there weren't tens of thousands of people present at that statue and I don't think any one of us of the correspondents who were there said there were. But the thing is, these scenes were happening all over Baghdad in small numbers - others statues were being defaced, government buildings were being looted. It just so happened that mass ranks of the world's cameras were at this statue, but it represented what was going on all over the city.
Peter Gould: An e-mail now from Clendon Alexander, Trinidad & Tobago who asks: Are there any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
Rageh Omaar: I don't know. I've been through so many conversations with weapons inspectors and Iraqi officials over the years and I haven't got to the bottom of the reality about that question. I don't know is the answer to that question. But it is a critical, critical question to be answered, given the whole nature and ambitions of what the war represented certainly for the British and American governments.
Peter Gould: George Soilis, Ashford, Kent, UK: Did you see the US Army or the British army commit crimes against humanity in Iraq?
Rageh Omaar: No I didn't. Look, I wasn't traveling with the British and American armies. I came across the American army when they arrived on my doorstep in Baghdad. So I didn't see them fight in other areas. I saw obviously the results of a lot of the bombardment in the air war in Baghdad and other outlying areas of the Iraqi capital. But no, I did not witness any acts of war crimes by British and American soldiers.
Peter Gould: Rob, UK: What do make of the charges that the reporting by the BBC was some of the most shameful and blatant 'anti-war' propaganda ever broadcast?
Rageh Omaar: I disagree completely with that comment. We had the some kind of things being said about us in the opposite direction. I've got literally dozens of e-mails on the one hand saying - you lied completely throughout the war and underestimated how well the British and American armies were doing. And I've had the complete reverse saying - Britain reported shameful things about Iraq and the suffering of the Iraqi people. Both of which I think is wrong - I don't we had any bias in any regard - we had a bias for the truth.
Peter Gould: Gareth Irvine, Coventry, UK: When you returned home after three months in Baghdad, what was the most difficult thing you had to face or adjust to?
Rageh Omaar: I think just being recognized so much by people - whether it's in South Africa, where I am based for the BBC, or here in the UK. That's come as a real surprise - everywhere I go people recognize me obviously because of the reports that I was broadcasting from Baghdad. It's a very odd sensation to have so much personal attention and that's the strangest thing. It's very nice - it shows that a lot of people were watching some of the reports I was making, but it's disconcerting.
Peter Gould: It's interesting because it is not as if you were an unknown face on TV before that. Clearly, the coverage of that particular sequence of events had an amazing impact around the world.
Rageh Omaar: Absolutely. It was just everywhere and from all age groups, all backgrounds, all nationalities, and faiths - it is everywhere I go. The very nice thing about it is that all of it - largely - has been really complimentary - but a little frightening but very nice as well.
Peter Gould: Momo Rasco Kamara, Buduburam Refugee Camp, Ghana: Is there conflict in Africa that you would like to cover? As you've already said, you are based in Africa - what are the big stories there you'd really like to do?
Rageh Omaar: There are lots of good important stories - one of the ones is obviously the plight of people in southern Africa, grappling with one of the worst droughts in living memory at the moment that affects up to 16 million people. I think the plight of a lot of the conflict in West Africa has been too underreported and I'd like to report on that.
I think there are also - and I hate the phrase - "good news stories", but I think it's important to accentuate that progress has been made in Africa as well as the enormous problems the continent faces. One of those, I think is the impact of technology in Africa. Here's this person writing an e-mail from a refugee camp in Ghana - that says it all.
Peter Gould: Just following on from that an e-mail from John, Manchester, UK: Where do you feel is the most unreported story around the world? Would you say it probably is in Africa?
Rageh Omaar: I think so. I think probably some of the most forgotten stories are and some of the most enormous stories with the most consequences - HIV/Aids in Africa is one thing - it's not just about Africa, there's huge HIV/Aids problems in Asia, the sub-continent, the Far East - a lot of places. There are many, many different things, if we all put our hands on our hearts and say what are the really underreported stories or stories that are hard to get on and a lot of them, you'll find are in Africa.
Peter Gould: Scott Kenward, England: After closely witnessing the US-led campaign to liberate Iraq, can you envisage returning to Baghdad in 10 years to find that liberty and democracy define everyday life?
Rageh Omaar: I would love to be able to do that in 10 years' time. I think the jury is still out - everything depends on how the administration of Iraq goes in the next year - it is a critical, critical phase. People should not believe that the fighting in Iraq is over. The development and importance of what happens in Iraq is going to have consequences for everybody and it's by no means over - it's only just begun. I think the most difficult task of nation building is only just beginning. We're beginning to see how difficult that is. The military task was the easier one - although unfortunately many people lost their lives - I think the political and human task of rebuilding Iraq is only just beginning.
Peter Gould: Well I'm afraid that's all we have time for today. Thanks to Rageh Omaar for joining us. From me, Peter Gould and the rest of the interactive team here in London, goodbye.