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Obstacles Hamper Iraq's Fledgling Fourth Estate

Attempts to jump-start a free news media have failed. The U.S.-led coalition, the Governing Council and lack of experience are blamed.

March 25, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — 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.

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