Jomana Karadsheh, an award-winning CNN journalist, recently visited Erbil to share her experiences and stories with a group of journalists as part of a CNN Academy training session, which now has an office in Erbil. During her visit, Karadsheh spoke with Kurdistan Chronicle about a variety of topics, including journalism, the media situation in Iraq, the country's political landscape, and ISIS threats.
Now based in the CNN’s London bureau, Karadsheh has spent the last two decades reporting from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
She began her career as a producer and reporter at CNN's Baghdad bureau from 2005 to 2011, where she covered major news events such as the trials and execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Iraq's first democratic elections, and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. Karadsheh was one of several CNN correspondents on the ground in Iraq in 2014 and 2015, covering ISIS's rise and the battle to retake cities from the terrorist group.
Kurdistan Chronicle (KC): How has Erbil changed since your last visit during the fight against ISIS? What is your impression?
Karadsheh: I love returning to Kurdistan and Iraq because the people are so welcoming. I feel at home and consider this region to be my home because I spend so much time covering it. I don’t consider it as a story or as a place that I covered; it's my second home. The last time I was here was during the height of the war against ISIS. It's incredible to return now and see how relaxed everyone is, to see the transformation of the city, the new buildings, the new restaurants, the new shopping malls. It just feels so normal; people here can finally live normal lives.
KC: Can you tell us more about your trip to Erbil?
Karadsheh: It's great that CNN Academy is sharing our experiences with some of the journalists who have enrolled in CNN Academy training, as well as the CNN way of doing journalism. I've only been here for less than 24 hours and have met so many journalists already, and I love hearing everyone's questions. People would also like to see a success story, not to call myself one, but you understand what I mean when I say that a Middle Eastern person can still make it and work for a major Western news organization. I think it's nice to tell people that where you come from doesn't really matter; it's all about what you can do and how you can do it.
KC: What advice did you give Kurdish journalists?
Karadsheh: I don't see this as a job or a career; it's a passion and a duty. It's difficult, demanding, and exhausting at times, but I love it. I never saw it as a job; I saw it as something I was born to do, something I enjoy doing. I feel an obligation and duty to tell people's stories. My advice to journalists is to never take no for an answer; if you work hard enough, you will be able to achieve your goals.
KC: If not billions, millions have been spent on developing Iraqi media and journalists since 2003, but some may argue that the current level of Iraqi media professionalism is not very ambitious; what are your thoughts on this?
Karadsheh: It is extremely difficult after decades of dictatorship to suddenly open up and have media freedom. You will make a lot of mistakes and still have a lot to learn. At the same time, the risks that journalists in this country face doing their jobs are incredible, whether from armed groups or terrorists. Clearly, Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist. It is not easy, and I am sure it is not ideal, but when you come to Kurdistan Chronicle or when we visited Rudaw Media Network today, it is great to see all the different media organizations and that there is a vibrant media environment. At the very least, Iraqis now have a choice in terms of which channels to watch and which media to follow.
KC: As someone who has covered Iraq for many years, what are your thoughts on the country's successes and failures?
Karadsheh: I believe that is a question for the United States government. I believe that a lot of things went wrong; for example, in 2010 and 2011, the United States withdrew its army, when all the warning signs were present of the emergence of another terror organization, and people were concerned. Then, two years later, ISIS emerged. Look at it now, things are better and more stable, but there is always a risk. I believe it is critical that Iraq continues to receive international assistance, such as security cooperation.
KC: Given the low turnout in Iraq's 2021 parliamentary elections, do you believe Iraqis have lost faith in the electoral process?
Karadsheh: I was in Iraq for a few days for the last elections, and people were asking why they should vote just because this person or that person gets a seat, but my life will not change. I'm still not going to have electricity or running water. They simply do not see a difference in their lives if they vote, which is very unfortunate.
KC: You've written a lot about ISIS. What is their current status, and are they still active?
Karadsheh: They're down but not out – a phrase the U.S. military once used. The most common mistake is believing that there are no threats from ISIS. This lesson should be learned from the past: don't let your guard down thinking it's over. There are still real threats, whether here or in Syria, because some of the problems that gave rise to ISIS still exist today, such as high unemployment and an economic crisis. The international community should support regions such as Kurdistan, which fought ISIS on behalf of the world in order to ensure that the threat does not resurface.
KC: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
CNN Academy/ Erbil Media City
CNN opened its fourth academy in the world in Erbil in 2022, in collaboration with Erbil Media City, following its academy in Abu Dhabi, Dublin, and Spain. The academy provides an 11-week journalism course designed to inspire the next generation of journalists in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Participants will be able to learn, connect with CNN journalists, produce their stories, receive a certificate, and join the international CNN hub.
The CNN Academy in Erbil has run two successful journalism training courses since its inception and is currently planning its third course, which will begin in September. This upcoming session will delve into critical topics such as the environment, water conservation, clean energy, and climate change, with a focus on the critical theme of sustainability. Participants will attend weekly four-hour training sessions for 11 weeks. They will conclude their learning journey with a one-week training experience at the CNN Academy in Abu Dhabi.
Reflecting on this transformative venture, Sanjay Rania, the accomplished General Manager of Erbil Media City, shared his vision for the region. With an impressive 30-year background in international media and entertainment, Rania envisions Erbil Media City as the premier media and entertainment hub in Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Building on this ambition, he is currently in discussions with esteemed film schools from around the world, exploring the possibility of establishing the first-ever film school in the region.
Rania, who has 30 years of international experience in media and entertainment, told Kurdistan Chronicle that Erbil Media City aspires to be the hub for media and entertainment in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. He is currently in talks with film schools around the world about opening the first film school in the Kurdistan Region and is also in talks with local universities and camera companies about participating.
Rania expressed his enthusiasm by saying, "Kurdistan is uniquely situated to host a film school. Its proximity to Turkey, Iran, Syria, and the Iraqi province of Nineveh, which was occupied by ISIS in 2014, provides a wealth of cultural and storytelling opportunities. Furthermore, the region has excellent connectivity, with two-hour flights to the UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Above all, the breathtaking topography, which includes picturesque mountains, valleys, and cities, provides an ideal setting for aspiring filmmakers. The film school will serve the entire Middle East."