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Iraq: After 30 Years, News Options Begin To Grow And Diversify

After three decades of one-party, one-man rule, which held the country's mass media under tight control, Iraq is now forging a new path toward a more diverse and pluralistic media. Nearly every day, new newspaper and radio broadcast options appear. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova reports from Baghdad on how Iraqis get their news -- and how much faith they put in it.

Baghdad, 6 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When the U.S.-led war in Iraq wiped out the country's telecommunications structures, Iraqis turned to a more traditional source of information: rumors.

Now, however, news services are beginning to come back to fill the information vacuum. More and more Iraqis say they are tuning into Iran-based Al-Alam ("The World") TV, Qatar's Al-Jazeera, or the U.S.-based Radio Sawa, which is transmitted by coalition forces from the Baghdad airport.

Baghdad has more than a half-dozen newspapers published by a range of political, ethnic and religious groups. Capital residents can choose between "Future," published by the Iraqi National Accord; "Conference," put out by the Iraqi National Congress; the Iraqi communists' "Road to the People"; and the London-based "Al-Zaman" ("Times"). Some of the papers are distributed for free; others sell for between 250-750 dinars (approximately $0.07-$0.20).

The number of newspapers and other sources of news are increasing on a daily basis. But many Iraqis say they often leave a lot to be desired, in terms of content and quality. In particular, residents say they need better, more objective information about the unfolding developments in postwar Iraq. Some say they feel they are at the center of an ideological battle between the polarized pro-American and anti-American worlds.

Valid is a 42-year-old clerk in Baghdad's Al-Hamra hotel. He said he was able to watch some Western coverage of the war and its aftermath on international channels like CNN. He said he was surprised and disappointed by what he considered a biased approach toward Iraq and its people. He believes the frequent Western reports on incidents of looting in Iraq are being organized by Americans for propaganda purposes.

"[Americans] opened these buildings and said 'Come and take everything.' And when [Iraqis] took everything, [the international media] showed to the world that Iraqi people are thieves. Iraqi people are not Ali Babas [thieves]. Why didn't [the media] go to the church to show to the world that Iraqi people go to the church to pray when they were bombing? Why they don't go to the mosques where [Muslims] pray to God to save them from this?" Valid asked.

Valid said that before the war, Iraqis were considered by many in the world to be terrorists, because of the reputation of their leader, Saddam Hussein. Now, he added, the image of Iraqis has changed, but not necessarily for the better. "Due to this media coverage," he said, "[people] say we are all thieves and criminals."

Hikmet is a 35-year-old oil engineer who used to work in Baghdad for a Russian company. Like Valid, he is critical of the media's coverage of the war -- but his complaints are directed at Al-Alam. He believes the Iranian channel is spreading anti-American propaganda and taking advantage of Iraq's Shi'ite majority to advance the agenda of its own religious regime.

"They are not showing the reality [of] what's happening in Iraq, no. When they show you things [they want] to tell the world that Americans are bad and not giving freedom to Iraqi people, and [that] it's better to stick with Iran and Iran will provide Iraqi people with freedom," Hikmet said.

Al-Alam broadcasts into Baghdad from a powerful transmitter from about 150 kilometers away, just over the Iran-Iraq border. The station, which broadcasts in Arabic and is said to be operated by the Iranian government, is the only foreign channel that can be viewed by Iraqis without a satellite dish. That has sent its viewership soaring among ordinary Iraqis, who cannot afford the $200 cost of a satellite dish and receiver.

During the Saddam Hussein era, Iraqis were forbidden to buy satellite dishes and ownership of one was enough to earn a prison sentence. Today, there is a boom of satellite dish sales among Baghdad residents rich enough to acquire one. Muhammad, who can afford both a satellite dish and a generator, said he stays tuned all day to Arabic news channels like Al-Jazeera, Lebanese Television Channel (LTC) or the United Arab Emirates' Abu Dhabi. Even so, he -- like the others -- said he is not satisfied with the coverage of the situation in Iraq.

"This is my country and I can see what is going on. Some of [the Arab channels] show some of it, but not as I can see what is going on. Things are getting worse every day and today is much better than tomorrow," Muhammad said.

Still, ordinary Iraqis are riveted by the foreign broadcasts, whether or not they like what they see. After years of Hussein-era state television -- which offered a mind-numbing diet of military parades and views of the president presiding over official meetings, interspersed with concerts and melodramas -- the foreign stations mesmerize viewers with their fast-paced news coverage and technical expertise.

That leaves the television battle for Iraqi hearts and minds, a key priority for the U.S. civil administration, now almost entirely in the hands of foreign news organizations, most of which are unfriendly to U.S. policy in Iraq. U.S. civil administrator Jay Garner has not said publicly when state television will be back on the air, but the task is complicated by the need to hire new staff and repair transmission towers hit by U.S. bombers.

Washington's sole foray into Iraqi television so far was during the war, when the Pentagon used a modified cargo plane -- dubbed Commando Solo -- to circle high over the country and beam down some five hours of evening television programming as well as radio broadcasts.

The U.S. is now pushing ahead with plans to create a nationwide television channel, an AM radio channel, and an independent newspaper for Iraq. All will be run by previously exiled Iraqis along with journalists recruited from within the country. The U.S.-taxpayer-funded project is the handiwork of the Indigenous Media Project, an offshoot of the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which is run by Garner.

For the majority of ordinary Iraqis with no access to television, new radio stations such as Iraqi News Net and Radio Sawa -- both transmitted from the Baghdad airport by coalition forces -- are for now the only sources of news and information.

Fans of these new radio programs say they like the Arabic and international pop broadcasts. But they are less enthusiastic about the news content. One listener, Salim, said the difficulty of day-to-day life in postwar Iraq is never reflected in the coalition broadcasts, which want to portray the country in a rosy hue.

"There is nothing true [in their news]," he said. "We hear: 'Wait, Iraqis, you will get humanitarian aid.' Where is this aid? They say: 'Go to schools.' But to which schools, if some of them are destroyed?"

Many Iraqis say their country's long-standing media censorship and isolation from international news have left them hungry for objective and unbiased news. With every new newspaper or radio station, they say they hope to find the coverage they were deprived of for so long.