An Iraqi Web Diarist Goes Silent

Did the Media Blow Baghdad Blogger's Cover?

On Monday, March 24, the Baghdad Blogger went silent. For several months readers around the world—exponentially more as the war drew closer—had been following the daily postings of "Salam Pax," believed to be the only Iraqi citizen keeping a Web diary. He wrote in a sarcastic, funny voice about the dread of oncoming war and the annoyance of using outdated software, about Western perceptions of Iraqis and Iraqi perceptions of Westerners. He talked about his fear of the blog being discovered by Iraqi authorities, writing that if identified, "I'd be pasta sauce."

As the blog began to draw more readers, an issue Salam addressed again and again, in a through-the-looking-glass way, was whether or not he was real. He quoted other bloggers' speculations (CIA agent? Mossad? Simply a clever impostor?). As recently as the Friday before his last post, Salam linked to a statement from a friend of his, Diane, another blogger living in New York. She offered a list of her own reasons for believing that Salam was who he said he was, some rather emotional, some objective. "Please stop sending emails asking if I were for real," Salam wrote that day. "Don't belive it? then don't read it. I am not anybody's propaganda ploy, well except my own. 2 more hours untill the B52's get to Iraq."

Monday, March 24, was also the day that The New Yorker published a Talk of the Town piece offering many more details about the Baghdad Blogger than had previously seen print. Diane was the main interview source for the story, which focused on the friendship of two secret bloggers. The piece's author, Daniel Zalewski, a senior editor at the magazine, chose to include a full dossier of personal details about Salam's life and history, including the contents of an email Salam had sent Diane headed "Things I Shouldn't Tell You." This included facts about his family background, upbringing and education, social class, his job, his religious beliefs and his personal life—which won't be repeated here.

Almost all the information in the article could be gleaned from Salam's own archives; but the very premise Salam was writing under was that the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, weren't savvy to such forms of communication. As Salam wrote to Diane, in a quote also included in the story, "The Internet thing is so new here they don't really know how to control this."

Zalewski said all but one of the personal details he included about Salam came from the Iraqi's blog. "Salam, in my view, wanted his story to be known," Zalewski said. "Despite his stated nervousness about being monitored by Iraqi authorities, and despite his awareness that thousands of people were reading his blog each day, he bravely continued to post candid political commentary and sharp, personal details about his life as an Iraqi citizen. He also left his full archive online—all six months of it. That’s why I felt comfortable including details from his Web site in my New Yorker piece."

As soon as the article appeared on Monday, sources say, Diane called Zalewski with concerns that the piece gave too many identifying details. She was particularly worried about a description of Salam's appearance drawn from a photograph Salam sent to Diane. Zalewski notes that a similar description had appeared on Salam’s blog, but says that out of respect for Diane's concerns he had the piece taken off The New Yorker's Web site that same day.

On March 25, Diane posted her last mention of Salam on her site: "Journalists: stay away." (She refused via e-mail to comment for this article.)

Many other bloggers joined Diane in the moratorium on further mentions of Salam. Joe Katzman wrote this post on March 25, titled "Zipper it": "Please remember: this guy lives in a regime where torture and murder on the most minor pretexts are commonplace. Don't offer details beyond 'lives in Iraq' if you write about him, and if any brain-dead reporters or bloggers happen to do so in the next little while, don't link to them. Saddam's hard boys are kind of busy right now, which means their time to track someone like him down is limited. Flood the net with too much information, however, and you could help make the job easy enough. Remember what these mentions do to Google rankings."

As of Thursday, April 3, Salam Pax had 3970 hits on Google. A handful of those were news stories that repeated the information from The New Yorker while speculating whether Salam is still alive.

There is reason to hope that Salam is simply on hiatus. On the two days before his last post, Salam wrote, he temporarily lost his Internet access; Iraq's lone service, Uruklink, could have gone down permanently as the bombs fell. And this morning, The New York Times reported that electricity is out in much of Baghdad. The role of increasing media coverage in Salam's current silence, then, is unknowable, though some of his readers fear the worst.

In yet another story, the St. Petersburg Times quoted a Council on Foreign Relations expert's opinion that Salam was taking a "considerable risk" by posting so much revealing personal information. For now, no one except Salam knows how much of a risk it was.

 
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