- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

BAGHDAD — A vendor on one street in the capital shouts out news he would have been arrested for trumpeting just weeks ago: “Read all about Saddam’s double.” A woman skids her car to a stop and asks for a copy of Assaah, a newspaper published in Iraq without government supervision.

Iraqis are enjoying press freedoms they haven’t seen in the eight decades since the nation’s establishment by British colonialists.

During the last part of Saddam Hussein’s 23-year presidency, no foreign newspapers were allowed into Iraq. Satellite dishes were banned, and cable television was prohibitively expensive. The sole windows to the outside world were radio stations such as the British Broadcasting Corp., Paris-based Radio Monte Carlo and the U.S. government’s Radio Sawa.

After the regime was overthrown in early April, a throng of freewheeling newspapers, radio and television stations sprang up to replace the turgid, sycophantic press under Saddam.

Kurdish and Arab, left and right, even two separate coalition-run radio stations, all are part of the boom.

Iraqis suddenly can choose from more than a dozen newspapers, compared with five state-controlled dailies of the past. People can buy satellite dishes and watch the channels of their choice, or listen to local radio stations denouncing Saddam as a corrupt and ruthless despot.

“The dictator has gone, and with him his corrupt system,” an editorial in Assaah stated.

In the days immediately after the dictatorship’s collapse, the country was left without any newspapers. State-run television and radio stations went off the air.

The vacuum was filled quickly by papers published by anti-Saddam groups in northern Iraq’s Kurdish areas, such as al-Itihad (“Union”) and Nidaa al-Mustaqbal (“Call of the Future”), which made their way to Baghdad. The London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat became the first foreign daily to be sold in the country in decades on April 17.

Within days, new newspapers began appearing on the streets. Three independent radio stations and several local television stations went on the air.

Still, some journalists say they are not sure whether the press scene is a reflection of newly found freedoms or a just chaotic post-dictatorial free-for-all.

“It is still too early to speak about the freedom of the press,” said Ali Abdel-Amir, senior editor of Nidaa al-Mustaqbal, a newspaper of the Iraqi National Accord, a longtime umbrella organization for Iraqi opposition groups.

“There is anarchy now,” Mr. Abdel-Amir said. “Many of these people working in the press are not professional or objective.”

Among the first new papers to start publishing in Baghdad was the London-based Al-Zaman, owned by Saad al-Bazaz, former editor in chief of the state-owned daily Al-Jumhuriya who defected a decade ago.

Assaah — “The Hour” — is published by Sheik Ahmed al-Kubeisy. The Sunni Muslim cleric fled Iraq a few years ago.

Fajr Baghdad — or “Baghdad Dawn” — bills itself as “Iraq’s first democratic and independent newspaper.” Its front page generally focuses on daily worries such as the lack of gasoline and electricity, and the looting and lawlessness that have swept the nation since Saddam’s ouster.

The U.S.-led military coalition that occupies the country has two radio networks of its own, one run by former employees of a station previously owned by Saddam’s elder son, Uday. Information Radio features news announcements, Arabic music and even Western music like the occasional rendition of “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News.

Another station, Radio of the Iraqi Republic, run by former Information Ministry officials, urges listeners to forget the past and work together for a better future.

In the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, the first local television station went on the air April 16, days after Baghdad fell. Local stations followed in other provinces.

Karbala Television, run by 10 volunteers using old equipment left over from the state broadcaster, airs seven hours of programming dealing with ways to cope with the province’s war-damaged infrastructure.

In Baghdad, viewers can tune in to the coalition information channel or watch channels from neighboring Iran, primarily the Arabic-language Al-Aalam.

Ali al-Fatlawi, a reporter for previous government newspapers, says working for Assaah is much better.

“There is more freedom and more openness,” he said. “The red lines have been lifted, and we can express ourselves freely and without threats.”


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