Iraq's new mania for media

Times Staff Writer

Saad Bazaz, who edited an Iraqi government newspaper before defecting a decade ago, was among the first to return after the fall of Baghdad. The Iraqi daily edition of his London-based Al Zaman, which hit the streets in early May, has quickly become popular for its independent tone, slick layout and color photos of female celebrities, from Western stars to the new Miss Lebanon.

Al Adala, published by a Shiite Muslim religious faction, is far different in content. Like most of the new daily newspapers here, it focuses on such everyday concerns as the lack of basic services and rampant lawlessness. But it also highlights prominent clerics and weighs in on matters of religious doctrine -- a recent front-page story reflected concerns that Iraq's future constitution respect the religious values and sensibilities of Shiites.

In recent weeks, dozens of newspapers and radio and television stations have sprouted to fill the void left by the collapse of Saddam Hussein's state-run media.

The sheer volume of new media reflects Iraqis' thirst for freedom of expression, as well as the kind of intellectual anarchy that has swept the country following three decades of dictatorial rule.

It has also prompted a decision by occupation officials to impose boundaries on news reports considered inflammatory. Iraqi journalists will be required to follow anti-incitement guidelines under a media order that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority plans to issue this week, authority officials said.

The order, which will be issued along with a more general anti-incitement public notice, is aimed at prohibiting the sort of incendiary rhetoric that could agitate an already tense Iraqi public. The notice will also make it illegal to publicly advocate for the return of Hussein's Baath Party, authority officials say. Journalists who flout the order would be subject to warnings, fines and possible detention, they say.

"The message is that you're free to say what you want, but there are red lines," said a spokesman for the authority, who asked that his name not be printed. "We hope as the media matures it will eventually be self-policing."

At this point, the nearly two dozen new newspapers have become the medium through which once-oppressed communities and parties jockey to redefine the past and push their agendas for the future. Many are little more than mouthpieces for religious and political factions, and seasoned Iraqi journalists returning from exile abroad predict that only a handful will survive.

"Right now, they're only a mirror reflecting one face," said Ali Abdel-Amir, the editor of Nidaa Al Mustaqbal, the newspaper of the Iraqi National Accord, an Iraqi opposition group.

Abdel-Amir lived in Jordan, as a correspondent for the London-based Arabic-language daily Al Hayat, and has returned to his native Iraq to work. "Once Iraqis know themselves and their place in the world better, the angle will widen," he said.

Hussein's regime banned foreign publications and satellite dishes and provided Iraqis with five official newspapers nearly identical in their pro-government content and Stalinist tone. Most people only turned to national television for soccer matches, and even those were often interrupted by Hussein's ponderous speeches.

The resulting sense of isolation and cultural decay was painful for what was arguably the Arab world's most literate, erudite society. "Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads," goes a famous Arab maxim.

Under Hussein, radio was already a source of news about the outside world. Iraqis were able to furtively access foreign radio stations such as the BBC's Arabic service, and, during the last year, the U.S. government-run Radio Sawa. So, only a handful of new stations have sprung up, two run by the occupation authority.

But at least four local television stations are now on the air and center their coverage around the postwar concerns Iraqis face in the provinces. Karbala Television, broadcast from the Shiite holy city of Karbala, was among the first.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, inside a garish palace bedroom where U.S. officials say Hussein once slept, another TV station has started up, this one run by the occupation authority.

"We're not here to serve any government, but the truth," said news director Ahmad Rikaby, an Iraqi journalist raised in Europe who returned after the regime's collapse to launch the station.

The station's producers say they are encouraging Iraqis to turn the same critical eye to the occupation authority as they do to other controversial dimensions of postwar Iraq.

But some Iraqis say the coverage is soft on the shortcomings of reconstruction efforts, partly because the station's Iraqi staff is not used to challenging authority, and partly because U.S. officials in Washington and Army officers in Iraq have tried to influence coverage, said a journalist who works for the station.

With newspapers, a wide variety of political viewpoints are readily available.

The headlines in a recent edition of Al Zaman examined America's administration of Iraq, from the contracts issued for the reconstruction of the port city of Umm al Qasr to a food control policy designed to help stabilize Baghdad.

The paper's Baghdad editor, Haithem Aziza, says Iraq holds the potential to foster an independent media that could be an example to the rest of the region, where state censorship is still the rule.

The physical task of printing Al Zaman, or any newspaper for that matter, under the harsh conditions of postwar Baghdad -- intermittent electricity, traffic jams and gas shortages -- has helped ensure that only wealthy individuals such as Bazaz, or political parties with their own resources, can afford to publish newspapers.

That bodes ill for the emergence of a more independent press that would operate off revenue generated from advertising -- a distant prospect in an economy staggering out of more than a decade of sanctions.

Now, like other print media, Al Zaman accounts for expected delays in its daily distribution of 30,000 copies. The paper plans to increase its circulation soon to 50,000 and expects to hit 100,000 once the country is stabilized and distribution becomes easier.

Across the board in Iraq's new newspapers, commentaries are equally harsh in their criticism of Hussein and the U.S.-led coalition. But the line between editorial and news is often blurred. A story on looting recently ran in the newspaper Al Manar under the sarcastic headline "Fruits of Democracy."

In some instances, coverage includes incendiary and unsubstantiated allegations, such as a front-page article in Monday's Al Saah accusing U.S. soldiers of gang-raping two teenage Iraqi girls in the southern city of Al Kut. The newspaper is published by a well-respected and moderate Sunni Muslim cleric, Ahmed Kubaisi.

The U.S. military investigated the allegation and concluded it was false. "This report is inaccurate, irresponsible and purposefully attempts to damage the credibility of our forces," the U.S. Central Command said in a press statement.

An occupation spokesman said the story was the kind that might lead to a warning under the order due to be issued this week.

Because the newspapers reflect the attitude of political parties toward the occupation, the spectrum of opinion broadly reflects the diversity of ideologies in Iraqi politics.

Newspapers published by the two chief Kurdish political groups close to the United States put the challenges of rebuilding Iraq in the context of Hussein's destructive policies. Dailies published by more radical Shiite groups attack the U.S. for being unresponsive and ill-prepared in the early days of liberation.

Learning a new skill

In many instances, coverage is backward-looking, as Iraqis struggle to confront the brutal and often bizarre realities of Hussein's deposed regime. A photo spread in the daily Al Manar, for example, focused on the extensive tiger collection of Uday Hussein, one of the ex-president's sons.

"Right now, the process of rewriting history and self-expression is what's important," said Maggy Zanger, a professor of mass communications at the American University in Cairo.

"Who knows if it's reliable or not?" said a man named Mustafa, who owns a currency exchange in north Baghdad and declined to give his last name. He said that, without knowing exactly who publishes each paper, it's difficult to judge the veracity of content.

An independent media will evolve in Iraq, say experienced journalists such as Abdel-Amir, only when Iraqis are able to make the mental journey out of the propaganda culture that passed for journalism under the rule of Hussein.

For journalists like Shadha Muhammed, who covered antiquities before the war for a government-owned newspaper, that means learning virtually a new craft.

"Before, we didn't really write," she said. "We just praised the president, and lied. Even about the [ancient] past."

Muhammed now works for the U.S.-sponsored newspaper Al Sabah, the print arm of the U.S. occupation media in Iraq, and is busy learning basic tenets of Western journalism: the need to verify information with several sources; mistakes don't bring hardship to your family (slips under Hussein's media meant a month of lost salary); and criticism of authority is allowed.

Abdel-Amir is training 20 journalists for his newspaper. He puts his head on his desk when asked about the challenges. "Their minds are embedded with Saddam," he said in a weary tone.

When handed copy to edit, he spills red ink crossing out the florid adjectives commonly used to describe Iraq in Baathist Party parlance. "Let us at least return our country its name," he said.

Amr, a bookseller who identified himself only by first name, has sold newspapers in northern Baghdad for more than three decades.

Like many Iraqis, he is pleased by the wealth of choice but frustrated by its free-for-all nature.

"Anyone with some cash can now publish a newspaper," he said, picking up a tabloid with florid design. "See this? This is published by the owner of the pastry shop across the street."

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