BAGHDAD — In the U.S., hurling an object at another country's visiting leader wouldn't earn a journalist much respect among his peers.
In Iraq, television journalist Muntathar al Zaidi is somewhere between a hero and an outcast after he threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference Sunday.
The response among his colleagues reflected the polarizing presence of Bush in Iraq and national media that continue to be a mix of partisan and independent news outlets.
"This is the first time an Iraqi journalist had the courage and that much freedom to express his opinion," said Nebras Al Ma'amori, a journalist at Baghdad's Samaria TV. "This is the beginning of change."
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Indeed, Saddam Hussein wasn't likely to take many questions from a free press during his dictatorship.
Free media began to blossom after Saddam's fall, prompting clashes with the U.S. military, among them the decision by former Coalition Provisional Authority leader L. Paul Bremer to shut a newspaper tied to anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr in March 2004.
Some Iraqi journalists said that Zaidi was out of bounds when he disrupted Bush's news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. His critics contend that Zaidi's outburst could jeopardize their access to government officials.
Zaidi waited for Bush to finish his prepared remarks and then whipped his shoes at the president while shouting, "This is a goodbye kiss, you dog."
"This will have consequences for us," a cameraman said as he was filming the news conference. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said that he feared that the Iraqi government would confiscate their tapes and delete the footage. His concern was heightened when Iraqi guards briefly detained two reporters who spoke approvingly of Zaidi's actions. They were released with the help of White House officials.
To some Iraqi reporters, Zaidi's actions were a clear transgression of journalistic responsibility. The Iraqi Union of Journalists stressed that point Monday when it criticized Zaidi.
"This person was looking for fame and he found that," said Fadhil al Nashimi, a journalist for the U.S.-funded Al Hurra television station in Iraq.
"This behavior is damaging to the reputation of journalists and Iraqis," he said. "This behavior isn't befitting of journalists."
Zaidi's employer, the Baghdadiya satellite channel, hasn't criticized its reporter. To the contrary, it's resisted a call for an apology to the government and called for Zaidi's unconditional release.
Zaidi's been in custody since Sunday night, and it's not known yet whether he'll face criminal charges. His family members have appeared on Iraq TV stations, where they've criticized Bush and encouraged Zaidi's release.
Their statements resonate with Wa'ad al Ta'ai, a friend of Zaidi's at Baghdadiya. Tai'ai has known Zaidi for the past four years.
"I was sitting closer to Bush than Muntathar," Tai'ai said. "But I didn't have the courage to do what he did."
"I believe most journalists there wish to do what Muntathar did, but he was the most courageous," Tai'ai added.
(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad. Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee.)
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