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Iraq: Independent Baghdad Radio Station Sets Standards For Journalists

There are many things lacking in newly sovereign Iraq, but freedom of expression isn't one of them. Radio Dijla, a private talk-radio station, offers Baghdadis a chance to participate in frank, open discussions on a variety of topics ranging from electricity blackouts to Iraq's political future. The formula works -- after just two months on the air, Radio Dijla is already the most popular station in Baghdad.

Baghdad, 29 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The handover of power yesterday from the United States to the interim Iraqi government no doubt has Baghdad residents talking even more than usual this week. But even on an average morning in the capital, they've got plenty of things to say.

Broadcaster: This is Shaima speaking to you on Radio Dijla FM from Baghdad. Dear listeners, we're continuing our program, and answering your phone calls. We have one call. Hello! How are you?
Caller: Hello. How are you, my sister? God bless this radio station for broadcasting the feelings of the people.
Broadcaster: Thank you very much. Who is with me on the line?
Caller: This is Abu Ali, from Al-Hurriya [a district in Baghdad].
Broadcaster: Thank you very much. Please go ahead.

The caller has a number of questions for Shaima and her guest in the studio, an official from the Economy Ministry: When is electricity going to be restored full time? When will fuel be more available? What about the sanitation problem?
"We got a display which shows how many hits we get. And it is approximately about 18,000-19,000 calls a day from the start until we close."

The official quickly grows flustered. These are hard questions for a radio program in a country where even now most media is tightly controlled by the state, political parties, or religious groups.

But this is Radio Dijla -- Baghdad's first private radio station dedicated to an all-talk format. After decades under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are eager to share their views. After just two months on the air, Dijla staff say the station receives thousands of calls a day.

Akhmad al-Rakabi is the founder and director of Radio Dijla -- called after the original name of the Tigris River that weaves through Baghdad. He tells RFE/RL the station's two phone lines are constantly busy.

"Phone calls never stop. The telephone lights are always blinking, even before we start broadcasting and even after we stop broadcasting. We got a display which shows how many hits we get. And it is approximately about 18,000-19,000 calls a day from the start until we close. At the moment we're starting at 9 o'clock and we close at 3 a.m.," al-Rakabi says.

Having the opportunity to directly question a senior government official is extremely unusual in Iraq. Al-Rakabi calls it a "historic experience," adding: "It is new to have a minister in the studio answering phone calls and listening to criticism for an hour or two."

Al-Rakabi, who spent seven years working with Swedish radio and television, opened Radio Dijla with a grant from Sweden. An experienced journalist who was born in Prague and raised in Europe, al-Rakabi spent five years working for RFE/RL's Iraqi Service in London.

More recently, he helped launch the U.S.-financed Iraqi Media Network in Baghdad, but later resigned because of disagreements over the company's management.

Al-Rakabi says the station strives to be objective. At a time when violence is sweeping Iraq, the offices of Radio Dijla have come under infrequent and light attacks -- something the director says testifies to the station's independent format.

Radio Dijla is open to virtually any topic a caller wishes to raise. Constructive criticism is accepted and encouraged. There is only one taboo -- using a call to incite violence. The minute that happens, the caller is taken off the air:

"You have an opinion, you're not happy with the Americans, you can express this opinion, definitely. If you would like to criticize a certain department of the government, you welcome to do that, but do it in a civilized way, do it in constructive way. We're not here to become supporters of violence. We don't want to become a part of a plot to kill other people," al-Rakabi says.

Al-Rakabi says a majority of the calls deal with the continuing problems in day-to-day life -- electricity cuts, unemployment, and crime. Still, the director says, politics remain a constant "hot topic."

"Iraqis are very political people -- not necessarily politicians, but they are very political. The issue of politics, I mean, is always involved in everything, really. But they never [before] had a chance to participate in the politics of the country," al-Rakabi says.

Dijla's aim, says the director, is to help Iraqis become accustomed to expressing and defending their views in an open forum, and to confronting politicians directly.

Al-Rakabi says after many years of dictatorship, many Iraqis have a poor understanding of political processes like elections. He says a recent Radio Dijla poll showed that 80 percent of respondents said they were badly in need of a electoral education campaign before next year's vote.

(Click here for more news and analysis on Iraq's handover of power.)

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