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Riding the Airwaves, Surfing the Net to Freedom in Iraq

Many tune in to foreign radio or go online to learn what they're not supposed to. It's their 'connection with the outside world.'

November 14, 2002|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Nearly every night, Murtadha Eqabi manages to escape from the control that the Iraqi government tries to exert over everything the college student hears and sees. He turns on a radio.

Tuning in to foreign news broadcasts is a ritual Eqabi shares with his father inside their small apartment here. They listen to the news broadcast in Arabic by French-run Radio Monte Carlo, getting information the regime tries to keep from them.

"Despite the fact that there are severe sanctions on our country, we do have connection with the outside world," said Eqabi, an archeology student at Baghdad University. "I listen to the news. It is part of our life."

President Saddam Hussein remains determined to restrict what Iraq's 22 million citizens know about the world beyond their borders. His people are cut off by trade sanctions and censorship, both of which limit access to technology, and they are force-fed government news accounts that frequently differ greatly from what much of the world hears. Satellite television is banned. Some foreign radio broadcasts are jammed. All internal media are state-controlled.

These days that kind of strict control is especially important for Hussein's government as it works to maintain order in the face of a possible U.S.-led attack. Anything that might chisel away at the appearance of unity in Iraq makes the leadership nervous. A new U.S. government program, Radio Sawa, which mixes Western and Arabic music with short bursts of news and is highly popular among young people, is one target of the regime's electronic scramblers.

"What they fear most now is domestic unrest," said a European diplomat based in Baghdad. "They need to feel and look unified. For months they have been working on that."

In trying to maintain that order, the government has realized that it needs to balance its reflexive leaning toward censorship with a rising public appetite to live in the modern world. To say the regime is becoming soft would be an overstatement. But it is recognizing the value of making people happy, or at least happier than they were. It recently issued a broad amnesty freeing almost every prisoner from jail. It has lifted taxes on travelers. It is making it easier for dropouts to return to school.

And it has given the people the Discovery Channel.

Iraqi television now offers, for a fee and to a select group only, new choices that include Discovery and a movie channel that serves up Hollywood fare, including recent broadcasts of "The Hunt for Red October" and "The Spanish Prisoner."

The regime also has provided wider access to the Internet and e-mail.

It first permitted Internet access for government ministries two years ago, but even top officials were not permitted to send e-mail from their offices. They had to go to a special government office.

Internet access to all mail-related Web sites, such as Hotmail and Yahoo, is still blocked, but individuals can buy government-monitored e-mail accounts to use at home. On the Internet, Iraqis can access most Western media, but sites tied to groups opposing the government are blocked.

At a cost of about $75 for three months of Internet access, plus additional fees for e-mail, both services are beyond the reach of most Iraqis. Many rely instead on Internet cafes, where they can surf the Web and send e-mail for the equivalent of about 50 cents an hour.

Ida Mustafa is the director of the first Internet center at Baghdad University. Her job is to collect fees (25 cents an hour for students), offer advice on how to use the Internet and make sure no one is finding his or her way to banned sites. Even before the students sit down, they must register their intent to use the Internet with their college and list several keywords they plan to search out.

"You are free to search whatever you like," Mustafa said, adding: "We have monitoring. Later I check for forbidden sites."

Mustafa's center is in the library on the campus outside downtown Baghdad. The room is small, with just eight terminals, and very quiet. The center has become so popular that students are restricted to two hours of access a week. There is no sense of playfulness here. Students recently were researching school topics, such as "inertia rockets" and "radiation detection." Ask them about the Internet and they offer a touch of defiance.

"It is a way around sanctions," said Ebtisam Fadel, 31, a postgraduate student who was researching "video image compression."

Many Iraqis may have First World expectations, a hangover from what is seen as the nation's modern golden age -- before the 1980-88 war with Iran and Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait -- when the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party poured money into education and infrastructure. But the 1970s are long gone, and Iraq is in Third World shape due in part to international sanctions.

For most people, that means the only escape comes in the form of scratchy radio waves.

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