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Iraq's new mania for media

Dozens of newspapers and broadcast stations have sprung up in the news-hungry nation.

June 11, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — 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.

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