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A media explosion in Iraq

Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq - On one street in the capital, a vendor shouts out news he would have been arrested for trumpeting just weeks ago: "Read all about Saddam's double!" A woman skids her car to a stop and asks for a copy of Assaah - a newspaper published in Iraq without government supervision.

Iraqis are now enjoying media freedoms unheard of in the eight decades since the nation was established by British colonialists.

"The dictator has gone, and with him his corrupt system," a recent editorial in Assaah states.

During Saddam Hussein's 33-year reign, no foreign newspapers were allowed into Iraq. Satellite dishes were banned, and cable television was prohibitively expensive. The sole windows to the outside world were radio stations such as the British Broadcasting Corp., Paris-based Radio Monte Carlo and the U.S. government's SAWA Radio.

Since the regime was overthrown in early April, a throng of freewheeling newspapers and radio and television stations has sprung up to replace the turgid, sycophantic media under Hussein.

Kurdish and Arab, left and right, even two separate coalition-run radio stations - all are chiming in.

Suddenly, there are more than a dozen newspapers to choose from, compared with five state-controlled dailies in the past.

In the days immediately after the dictatorship's collapse, the country was left without newspapers. State-run television and radio stations went off the air.

The vacuum was quickly filled by papers published by anti-Hussein groups in northern Iraq's Kurdish areas, such as al-Itihad (Union) and Nidaa al-Mustaqbal (Call of the Future), which made their way to Baghdad. On April 17, the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat became the first foreign daily to be sold in the country.

Within days, new newspapers began appearing on the streets. Three independent radio stations and several local television stations went on the air.

Among the first papers to start publishing in Baghdad was the London-based Az-Zaman, owned by Saad al-Bazaz, former editor in chief of the daily state-owned Al-Jumhuriya who defected a decade ago.

Assaah - The Hour - is published by Sheik Ahmed al-Kubeisy, a Sunni Muslim cleric who fled Iraq a few years ago.

Fajr Baghdad - or Baghdad Dawn - bills itself as "Iraq's first democratic and independent newspaper." Its front-page generally focuses on daily worries such as the lack of gasoline and electricity and the looting and lawlessness that have swept the nation since Hussein's ouster.

Some journalists say they're unsure whether the media scene is a reflection of newly found freedoms or just a chaotic post-dictatorial free-for-all.

"It is still too early to speak about the freedom of the press," says Ali Abdel-Amir, senior editor of Nidaa al-Mustaqbal, newspaper of the Iraqi National Congress, a longtime exile group.

"There is anarchy now," Abdel-Amir says. "Many of these people working in the press are not professional or objective."

Ali al-Fatlawi, a reporter who worked previously for government newspapers and now works for Assaah, is more optimistic. "There is more freedom and more openness," he says. "The red lines [of censorship] have been lifted, and we can express ourselves freely and without threats."

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