- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 16 December 2008
Muntadhar al-Zaidi will go down in Arab folklore as the man who dared to throw his shoes at George Bush but his immediate problem is how to recover from the reprisals he suffered after his bold gesture. His older brother, Dargham, has told reporters Muntadhar suffered a broken hand, broken ribs and internal bleeding, as well as an eye injury, and is in hospital.
If true, the reports confirm what the TV clips shown on the Guardian’s website in the aftermath of the incident seemed to suggest. A number of Western news reports referred to Zaidi as “screaming” while he was taken out of the press conference room. They gave the impression he was ranting at Bush. The soundtrack hinted otherwise. It contained a series of agonised yelps and grunts, as of a man being repeatedly kicked and thumped. By then, Zaidi was on the floor, and cameras could not catch him in the melee. But listen to the message of the microphones. It seems to tell a vicious tale.
Who was doing the punching, if that is what it was? Was it Iraqi security men or Bush’s bodyguards from the US Secret Service? Either way, whatever brutality it is now alleged was meted out to Zaidi far outweighs the violence involved in his gesture. This will only serve to add to Zaidi’s status, making him a martyr as well as a hero in large sections of the Arab world, where commentators have been vying with superlatives to describe his action.
The judicial fate that befalls him will also play a role. Will he receive a prison sentence, or released after a few hours, as tends to happen to protesters who throw eggs or tomatoes at politicians in western countries? The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has condemned Zaidi’s action as an insult to a foreign guest, but Maliki – who, of course, has no influence over Iraqi’s independent prosecution service – must know that a harsh sentence will only damage his own new-found reputation as the nationalist who managed to get Bush to agree to a withdrawal timetable.
Zaidi’s coup de théâtre was imaginative, but his readiness to disrupt a high-level US press conference in Baghdad was not unique for an Iraqi journalist. I will never forget the one Colin Powell gave on March 19 2004. As the then US secretary of state took his place at the podium in the Green Zone’s convention centre, Najim al-Rubaie from the newspaper Al-Dustour rose to his feet and read a statement: “We declare our boycott of this press conference because of the martyrs. We declare our condemnation of the incident which led to two journalists being killed by American forces.”
Around 30 other Iraqi and Arab journalists then stood up and followed Rubaie out of the hall. In silence, we watched them leave, as stunned as Powell. It was the bravest collective action I have ever seen a group of journalists take. I have attended press conferences in several dozen countries where reporters – at least, not the lapdog ones – compete with each other in the usual macho way to ask officials tough questions. A collective protest, and taking a stand on an issue? It never happens.
The protest that day in 2004 was over the shooting of a reporter and his cameraman from the Al-Arabiya TV station. They had been driving up to investigate a suicide bomb several minutes after it exploded, but were gunned down by nervous US soldiers at a Baghdad checkpoint. They were not the first reporters to be killed by the Americans in the year after the invasion, so their colleagues’ indignation was not a sudden flare-up; it was more like a slow burn.
Presumably, that was the case with Zaidi. Several dozen more journalists have died in the line of duty in Iraq since 2004. You can see why any journalist would be angry. There’s no other profession that allows a person close and regular access to the world’s top decision-makers in a context that permits plain speaking. Add to that the perpetual daily tension of life in Iraq, the bereavement which so many Iraqis have suffered in their own families, and the humiliation which being occupied by foreign troops causes on a constant basis, the surprise is that it has taken so long for an Iraqi journalist to throw a shoe.