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Iraqis Learn to Spread Word Through Media

By Master Sgt. Sonja C.R. Whittington, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 13, 2004 – In another move toward a democratic society, a dozen Iraqi nationals have learned the meaning of a free press and the role of the media.

Twelve Iraqis recently graduated from the first Iraqi Basic Public Affairs Course, taught by Combined Joint Task Force 7's Coalition Press Information Center here. Officials said the students all are part of the Iraqi Media Engagement Team at the CPIC, and are vital to spreading the word about coalition efforts in Iraq to the public.

But in a society new to the concept of a free press, there was a lot to teach, said Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. David Byron, the course facilitator and noncommissioned officer in charge of the media engagement team.

"The course was created pretty much from scratch," he said. "It was structured after the (U.S. military public affairs course) but modified to get away from the American military focus and to the Iraqi focus."

The result is a dozen people who are paving the way for a direct exchange of information between the future government of Iraq and its people.

"The purpose of the course was really two-fold," said Air Force Maj. Karen Finn, chief of the Iraqi Media Engagement Team. "The short-term goal was to train Iraqi nationals to be public affairs officers so they can contribute to the CPIC mission. The long-term strategic goal is to train Iraqi public affairs officers who will eventually be employed by the (Iraqi) ministries and government to do PA work and build PA shops."

All of the students have been employed as translators and media analysts at the CPIC, but the idea came up to bring an engagement team together that could work closely with the Arabic media. Training was a natural outcrop of that, said Finn.

"We needed to reach out to the Arabic audience," she said. "We're not successful unless we engage the Arabic (people) they are our key audience."

Being involved in creating the first class was gratifying for both Finn and Byron, they said.

"It was gratifying watching people develop both personally and professionally at such a rapid speed," Finn said. "They were like sponges absorbing the information and then applying it. They were thirsty for the knowledge."

Since the students also employed by the CPIC, the classes were held in the morning and the students worked in the CPIC in the afternoon. Byron said seeing the students apply the skills they learned was gratifying for him. "I got to see immediate results (from the classes)," he said.

Although the students graduated with a certificate, they all know that the learning isn't over. "If we stressed one thing, it was to continue improving (their skills) and knowledge," said Byron.

One student in the course has taken that to heart. "I am training at home more for interviews," said one student, whose name is withheld due to security concerns. "I want to know more and more. I need to practice more and more, and need to talk more to people."

He already has put into practice some of the skills he learned in the course. He is an intern on the CPIC press desk, and uses the techniques he learned from news writing to researching answers to questions from the media. "I wanted to work in this field before, but in Saddam's time, you must say you love Saddam," he explained.

Instructors for the course were drawn from public affairs professionals from all services, and other countries. "Many of the instructors were able to bring their individual expertise to the class," said Finn. "Many of them are reservists who are teachers or other professionals in their civilian lives."

Because the Iraqi students have lived most, if not all, of their lives under the Saddam Hussein regime, the concept of a free press and its role in a democratic society was one of the first lessons the students had to learn.

"We had to have classes on democracy," Byron said. "We had to teach them not only how to be public affairs people, but how to be a free people as well. The concepts of freedom of the press and freedom of speech were difficult (for them) to understand. In the past, they had neither; only what the former government allowed."

While the students knew what the words meant, Byron compared it to chocolate you might have heard of chocolate, but unless you've tasted it, you don't know how good it is. The students knew what the words "free press" meant, but didn't understand how it was essential in a democratic society, he said.

"We had to explain how the media acts as a watchdog of the government in a democratic society," Byron said, "as well as an information bridge between the government and the people."

The class focused on public affairs skills, but the students learned more than that.

"We placed a lot of emphasis on teamwork in the first course," said Byron. "We'll place an even larger emphasis on it if we teach the course again."

Another course is in the works, but plans also are under way to bring over military public affairs instructors for more formal future courses.

Although others will be coming in the future to teach the class, Finn and Byron said they are glad they had the opportunity to work with the Iraqi Media Engagement Team.

"This has been one of the most gratifying things I have done in my whole PA career," the major said. "It was exciting to share my experiences with others and to help people who are going to help build their nation."

(Air Force Master Sgt. Sonja C.R. Whittington is deployed to the Coalition Press Information Center.)

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