Every other day, the editor, bespectacled and perpetually pecking at a laptop, sends a top secret 8-page document to an anonymous printing house near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a central plaza which has transformed into the hub of what has become the largest grassroots protest movement in Iraq’s modern history.
Working under a cloud of secrecy, a group of six labor swiftly to publish thousands of copies of “Tuk Tuk,” a newspaper purporting to represent the voice of demonstrators, who first took to the streets in the tens of thousands to decry rampant government corruption, scarcity of jobs and poor basic services despite Iraq’s vast oil wealth.
The leaderless uprising seeks to dismantle the current system of government, and the editors of “Tuk Tuk,” two experienced journalists among the protesters, look to document the twists and turns in the movement’s pursuit of this aspiration in a medium protesters can trust.
“It can be a tool to inform, to communicate about the latest developments, but more importantly, it’s a tool to serve as a record of what is happening from our perspective,” said one editor, who met the Associated Press at a popular café close to Tahrir square. The two editors requested anonymity fearing retaliation from the government.
Its current circulation is 3,000, the editors said.
The idea to launch the newspaper occurred to them before the second wave of violent demonstrations swept the country on October 25. The first wave occurred on October 1-7, when Iraqi officials cut internet access, blocking efforts by protesters to communicate with each other and coordinate on the streets.
“We knew it would happen again,” said the editor, “and that we needed to be prepared.”
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Protesters have employed ingenious tactics to stay online despite ongoing internet cuts. Some purchased foreign SIM cards and pay roaming rates to keep on top of social media and inform demonstrators in and outside of the capital, mostly in the predominantly Shiite south, about the latest developments or to locate demonstrators elsewhere who might help restock food and medicine when running short.
But not everyone among the protesters, most of them youth hailing from the impoverished suburbs of Baghdad, can afford this option. “There needed to be something to keep everyone informed,” said the editor.
Thus, “Tuk Tuk” was born. It was named after a powerful symbol of the protest movement, the three-wheeled tuk tuk vehicles whose drivers rush injured protesters, sometimes through sniper fire, from the frontline of demonstrations to medical centers.
“Tuk Tuk” fills an information void left by mainstream Iraqi media, the editor said. “There is no real media coverage of the protest movement in the Iraqi press — not in a way that protesters feel adequately represents them,” he said.
Protesters perceive Iraqi journalists as working alongside the government to undermine them, or journalists they respect are forced to self-censor after several media offices were attacked by unidentified gunmen following the first wave of protests. The masked perpetrators attacked the Baghdad offices of Dijla TV, Kurdistan-based NRT TV and the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya.
The editors are hoping to make “Tuk Tuk” daily. Costs are low, since staff are volunteers and the printing house agreed to publish it free. The editors said they completely crowd-sourced the $400 cost of the past six issues. Editors also send PDF versions of the paper to cities in the south to be printed and distributed.
Zaid, a 21-year-old protester in Baghdad, was reading the latest issue of “Tuk Tuk” and said he found the translation and republishing of articles that appeared in the international press, including the New York Times’ recent report on Iranian intelligence cables, especially interesting.
But winning the trust of the wider protest movement, which encompasses Iraqis from all walks of life, from the poor working class to the urban educated elite, is a continual challenge.
“There are arguments for sure, people disagree,” said the editor. “But we all have the same goal, and we all listen to each other.”
One of the most important elements of the paper, he added, is in transmitting statements written collectively by protesters living in a tent community in Tahrir Square.
For every issue, “we sit together and we discuss the latest developments and we write down what we think and feel,” said Zaydoun, one of the protesters.
“We see some protesters on television expressing their own thoughts and ideas, but we needed a space to express ourselves as one voice,” Zaydoun said.
The statements, signed by “the Protesters in Tahrir Square,” are sent to “Tuk Tuk” for publication. Often they lay out protesters’ responses to key events, such as the killing of demonstrators, and their views on activities of Iraqi and foreign officials.
In one recent statement, representatives from 20 tents in the square debated their response after UN Special Representative to Iraq Jeanin Hennis-Plasschaert called for reforms after meeting with Iraq’s most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They disagreed over the choice of words — some wanted to be blunter, some more diplomatic — but they all agreed on one point: Her words did not go far enough because she didn’t call for the dismantling of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s administration.
“Tuk Tuk” is also a tool to address the many rumors circulating in the press about the protest movement, in particular allegations that it was being funded by foreign actors, including the United States. “We did an issue just about rumors once, to sort of make fun of this,” the editor said.
The headline of this issue read: “No to America, no Israel, no Saudi Arabia, no Iran.”