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Iraqi Media Experience Freedom, Growing Pains


Iraq's recently elected leaders are preparing to draft a new constitution, which is to be debated publicly before being submitted to the people in a referendum. The country's news media will play a major role in this process, but the Iraqi media are experiencing considerable growing pains as they struggle to emerge from decades of repression.

From studios in a converted house in a Baghdad neighborhood, Radio Dijla begins its broadcast day. The one year-old broadcaster is Iraq's first talk-radio station.

General Manager Kareem Yusuf says the station takes thousands of calls a day from Iraqis exercising a newfound freedom to express their opinions.

He says during the era of Saddam Hussein, the people were restricted, but now they are starting to express their views more openly.

Independent observers say the Iraqi news media have come a long way since the Saddam era, when the media were controlled and journalists were subject to imprisonment if they displeased the government.

Today more than 200 newspapers are published in Iraq and some 80 radio stations and 20 television stations are on the air.

However, a political analyst with the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development, Ghassan al-Attiyah, says Iraq's post-Saddam news organizations are still in their infancy.

"We are in a teething period,” he said. “There are more than 200 papers, but circulation is very limited and their quality is mediocre to say the least."

Television is the main source of information for most Iraqis, but most TV stations are owned by the government or political parties.

Critics note that there have been government directives recently regarding coverage of the ongoing violence. They fear Iraqi television, along with other media, may come under excessive government influence.

From studios inside the fortified Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, Iraqia Television broadcasts a daily mix of news and entertainment.

The station also broadcasts nationalistic songs and tributes to those who suffered during the war to free Iraq.

The station was started by the U.S.-led Provisional Coalition Authority after the fall of Saddam, and transferred last year to the interim Iraqi government.

In one popular, but controversial, Iraqia program, captured suspects have confessed to hundreds of murders, rapes and kidnappings, usually for money.

Critics say the confessions have been made under torture, and are aggravating sectarian tensions within the society.

Supporters of the program say it has de-mystified the Iraqi insurgency, and shows that the violence that pervades Iraq is largely criminal.

Government officials say something was needed to counter broadcasts by regional Arabic satellite stations that portrayed bombings and executions as part of a noble resistance.

The print media, too, are undergoing growing pains. Several private independent newspapers publish daily, but Ismail Zayer, the editor of Sabbah al-Jadeedah newspaper, says very few publications are truly independent.

"The media now is a free media," he said. "There's no central organization or control on the media, but that doesn't mean that everything is okay, because 95 percent or more of the media are owned by political parties."

Ismail Zayer: Editor Ismail Zayer says an independent media is crucial to the democratic transition
Mr. Ismail says advertising revenues for independent publications like his are low. As a result, many private media rely on support from wealthy businessmen, or they publish propaganda from foreign intelligence services in exchange for fees.

Mr. Ismail adds that subsidized government newspapers are selling their editions below cost and are driving private newspapers out of business.

"We are thinking if we will not get a good position in a few months I think the independent media cannot survive till the new elections,” he noted. “We need help."

One respected independent paper has already closed, and several others have been dismissing staff.

International observers say that with so many publications, a shakeout is normal. But newsmen like Ismail Zayer say it is coming at the wrong time.

"In this period we need badly independent media. And if you don't have it, I don't think this will be good for democracy. It's not enough to have a good army or good government, you should have real media," he added.

He says free public discussion will be needed as Iraqis debate a new constitution and vote in elections later this year, and unbiased news outlets will be required to facilitate the debate. Independent news media, he says, will be crucial to Iraq's successful transition to democracy.