Obstacles Hamper Iraq’s Fledgling Fourth Estate

Times Staff Writer

At first blush, it could be a journalism classroom anywhere in the United States.

A triangle drawn on a white board depicts the “pyramid style” of news writing. Students hear about the importance of a “nut,” or summary, paragraph and using anecdotes to tell a story.

But this isn’t typical Journalism 101. There are tips for interviewing car-bomb witnesses. A student pitches a story about the proliferation of barbed wire.

As it is doing for virtually every aspect of its society, Iraq is struggling to rebuild -- and in many ways create from scratch -- free institutions after 35 years of state control. Journalism training courses such as this one are just the start in creating a free press.

U.S. officials take heart that more than 250 newspapers have sprouted since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was toppled. Still, despite Iraqis’ reputation as voracious readers, newspapers have barely penetrated the market. Total newspaper circulation in Iraq -- a nation of 25 million -- is believed to be less than 300,000.


Sales of satellite television dishes, previously illegal, are booming, with one-third of all households receiving channels from around the world. But efforts to launch TV and radio stations have stalled, leaving Iraq with only one national TV broadcaster, Iraqi Media Network, a U.S.-controlled station that lacks credibility with average Iraqis and has been plagued by management turnover, a lack of funds and accusations of censorship.

There’s a budding free press, but it remains weak. Although reporters theoretically are free to express their views, the U.S. military has raided the offices of newspapers it deemed to be aiding insurgents. The Iraqi Governing Council has banned some news outlets for being “disrespectful”; and the office of one U.S.-backed newspaper was recently attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade.

“The culture of an independent media hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Hiwa Osman, editor of the newly opened Iraq office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization working to train a new generation of journalists. “Iraq still needs to be able to produce a journalist who can tell a future president, ‘You lied to us,’ and go home safely that night.”

Such risks were underscored recently when five Iraqi journalists were killed in two incidents. Three broadcast journalists working for a U.S.-backed station were attacked in their car near Baqubah, and a reporter and a cameraman working for Arabic-language satellite TV channel Al Arabiya were allegedly shot by U.S. soldiers. Circumstances in both incidents remain unclear, but the shooting led Iraqi journalists to stage a walkout Friday during Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s news conference in Baghdad.

A strong fourth estate is seen as a vital part of Iraq’s democratic future, particularly in elections and a constitutional debate.

“This is one of our arguments against elections right now,” said Samir Shakir Mahmoud, a Sunni Muslim and an independent member of the Governing Council who heads its media committee. “We don’t believe the local media has reached any kind of maturity yet.”

Iraqis appear to distrust what they read in newspapers and see on television, thanks largely to living so long under a state-run propaganda machine led by Hussein’s son, Uday. Even today, many citizens say they are more apt to believe a rumor they hear on the street than a story carried by the local press.

Credibility is further damaged when newspapers publish unsubstantiated rumors, such as one story about a “secret trade road” to smuggle goods to Israel, and another -- later retracted -- that claimed U.S. soldiers had raped a 12-year-old Iraqi girl.

Still, there are some signs of progress.

In January, Al Mada, a 5,000-circulation Baghdad newspaper, made an international splash by naming dozens of individuals who allegedly received oil bribes in return for supporting Hussein. The story was picked up around the world and triggered government investigations in Iraq and other countries.

“I’ve seen a real improvement in the sophistication of questions I get,” said L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator who holds a round-table with a different group of Iraqi reporters each week.

On Wednesday, Bremer announced the creation of an interim media commission, based on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which will license broadcasters, draft media laws and help develop professional and ethical standards.

But Iraqi journalism still has a way to go on the road to professionalism. Newspaper editors say they must shift reporters to different beats to discourage them from falling into old habits of accepting bribes from subjects and sources.

Political parties and religious groups control most newspapers, using them to promote their leaders. For example, Al Taakhi, which is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party, refers to KDP head Massoud Barzani as “The President,” and his photograph appears throughout nearly every issue. The rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has its own newspaper.

There are some newspapers that say they are independent, such as Azzaman -- founded by a former Iraqi information minister who fled the country -- and Asharq Al Awsat -- which covers the Middle East. But both are based in London and are not viewed as local.

The United States attempted to fill the void with Al Sabah, an upbeat daily, financially supported by the Iraqi Media Network. But the paper has had a hard time establishing credibility because of its U.S. ties.

“We are not the mouthpiece of the CPA,” the Coalition Provisional Authority, said Editor Ismail Zair. Nevertheless, he said the paper hopes to become financially independent in the spring, replacing U.S. backing with support from a new Iraqi government. Al Sabah, like virtually every other new Iraqi newspaper, is unprofitable.

The picture of Iraq’s broadcast market is even bleaker.

After the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 200 radio stations and 70 TV broadcasters hit the airwaves as that nation struggled to recover. In Iraq, only about 25 radio and TV stations have applied for licenses. Kurdish-controlled areas have had their own broadcast stations for years, but in the rest of Iraq, broadcasters consist mostly of tiny operations that are on the air only a few hours a day, coalition advisors said.

“We need to give the market a push,” said Simon Haselock, a coalition media consultant who helped set up a free press in Bosnia.

The nine members of the new media commission -- to be named as early as next week -- are expected to open bidding for two licenses to set up national TV channels. But some issues have yet to be worked out, including whether foreign ownership will be permitted and whether the stations will be affiliated with a particular party or religion.

In February, the U.S. launched an Arab-language satellite channel called Al Hurra -- based in Springfield, Va. -- which is designed to compete with Arab news channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

Hopes for the U.S.-backed Iraqi Media Network and its broadcast channel Al Iraqiyah have dimmed, despite spending nearly $200 million on two Pentagon contractors hired to launch the media company. The contract was recently transferred from San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. to Florida equipment maker Harris Corp.

The station has suffered from management turnover and poor ratings. Some U.S. and Iraqi advisors left, complaining that coalition officials tried to use the station as a public-relations vehicle.

“It’s a terrible shame,” said Don North, a former Middle East correspondent for ABC and NBC who served as an Iraqi Media Network advisor until he left in frustration last summer. “As a nation in the forefront of media, we should be able to help them establish decent radio and TV.”

After nearly 10 months on the air, Al Iraqiyah still airs only two hours of original programming a day, filling the remainder with recycled shows bought from other Arab countries.

One of the station’s only original programs is a 15-minute weekly interview show called “Steps,” outlining and analyzing the U.S. plan to transfer authority over Iraq to a new assembly by June 30.

But after the first show aired, a senior coalition official attempted to temporarily halt production, said Ala Faik, the former No. 2 official at Al Iraqiyah, who quit recently. The official complained about the show’s low production quality, its lack of a “scripted outline,” and the guests who were invited to appear. Faik said he ignored the orders and proceeded with the show.

The coalition official who complained has left the country and could not be reached for comment. Other coalition officials declined to comment.

Members of the Iraqi Governing Council express frustration over the disorganization and delay.

“There could be a lot more progress,” said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the council. (He is the father of Hiwa Osman of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.) “This issue should be handed over to the Iraqis. We could do the job better.”

But he said U.S. officials have refused. The council was not even consulted about the recent contract award to Harris.

“The U.S. thinks the media should be in their hands,” Othman said.

Some Iraqi journalists question whether the council would do a better job. Though the bylaws of the newly created media commission seek to create a free and independent press, some on the council have expressed support for licensing or registering journalists.

The Governing Council “wants to control us, too,” Faik said. “They want us under their wing.”

The council has repeatedly used its power to crack down on Arab news channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, accusing them of inciting violence, airing “inflammatory” material and “disrespecting” Iraqi religions and national leaders. Al Arabiya’s offices were raided in November by Iraqi police. Representatives for Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera declined to comment.

This month, the council removed a radio reporter from its weekly news conference because the woman had raised embarrassing “impolite” questions earlier about the accuracy of one council member’s statements. Several Iraqi journalists walked out of the news conference in protest. “It’s an insult to the rights of Iraqi journalists,” said Samia Maliki, a reporter for the newspaper Al Zawra. “Today it’s her. Tomorrow it could be us.”

Bremer said he was confident that the Iraqi media would improve with time. “The American press has had 200 years of practice,” Bremer said. “These guys have had 10 months. We have to show some patience.”