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Freedom of Speech Flourishes on Iraq Talk Radio Station

The people of Iraq are still struggling to cope with violence and poverty, a legacy of the Saddam Hussein regime and the war that overthrew him. However, the fall of Saddam brought one change, freedom of expression. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from Baghdad on one of the ways Iraqis are taking advantage of this new liberty.

It is midday in the heart of Baghdad. And, as the capital's five million residents struggle to survive, amidst insecurity and unemployment, a radio station provides an outlet for their frustrations. It may be small comfort, but the freedom to criticize and to complain is one of the most visible gains for ordinary Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Radio Dijla broadcasts from a studio in a converted house. It was one of the first Iraqi radio stations to air, after the fall of Saddam and, according to its owners, it is the first independent, talk radio station in the Middle East.

Although it is just one year old, Radio Dijla has become one of the most popular stations in Baghdad. Its hosts field an average of 2,000 phone calls during its 24-hour broadcast day. Thousands more listeners call in, but are unable to get through.

Announcer Majid Salim is hosting a program titled, loosely translated, "What would you do in my situation?" It allows callers to discuss everyday problems.

Majid, a slender man with horn-rimmed glasses and a wry grin, hosted a youth-oriented station run by Saddam's son, Uday. He was arrested and beaten dozens of times, once when he couldn't find a song requested by the dictator's son.

Today, Mr. Majid's callers seem to have a common complaint: They are oppressed. One such caller is Um Ali.

She complains that security forces destroyed her café during an operation and now she has no livelihood. She says she is oppressed.

Mr. Majid says, "This is one of the oppressions today," and moves on to the next caller.

A man calls in saying that all Iraqis are oppressed, but especially blind people like him. He says, "We knock on the door of the ministries, but they do nothing for us."

Mr. Majid welcomes him to the ranks of the oppressed.

Another caller says, "People without jobs are all oppressed. To whom can they turn?" Then she answers her own question saying, "Maybe to the new government. I hope things improve."

General-Manager Kareem al-Yusuf says Radio Dijla provides an outlet for people who have known little freedom.

He says this kind of programming broadens people's thinking because it allows them to express their views.

Radio Dijla airs programs on a variety of topics, ranging from children and women's issues, to sports, the arts and education. But Mr. Kareem says the most popular programs are on politics.

The station tries to educate Iraqis about their newfound freedoms. One program, aimed at children, discusses the recently inaugurated parliament. Another deals with the new constitution that is to be drafted this year.

Politics in Iraq is a sensitive subject. Most Iraqis want peace and an opportunity to provide for their families. But some support the armed resistance that has killed thousands of people in the past two years.

Mr. Kareem says some politicians try to use ethnic or sectarian loyalties to advance their careers.

He says some Iraqi journalists are trying to poison the people, but Iraqis must get rid of them.

He supports a free media that is not tendentious or biased. The station's motto is, "Our opinion does not count. What counts is your opinion."

Callers are allowed to express any view, no matter how extreme, as long as they do not call for violence or sectarianism and do not use profanity.

Veteran Iraqi journalist and editor of the independent al-Sabbah al-Jadeeda newspaper, Ismail Zayer, says the Iraqi media have yet to emerge completely from the years of repression.

Ismael al-Zayer
"What we are looking for is free, independent media, neutral media. This is something we still miss and we still need to develop," he said.

He notes that Iraqi media must also compete with well-established broadcasts by neighboring countries and the international community, which do not have an Iraqi perspective. He says Iraq's independent media need more support.

Back in the studios at Radio Dijla, the calls from oppressed listeners have taken a humorous turn.

A caller named Ashwaq says she is oppressed because every time she tries to phone in, the lines are busy.

Mr. Majid draws a laugh from the staff when replies that this kind of oppression is good and all Iraqis should be oppressed in this way.

Radio Dijla is beginning to spawn imitators. Its directors hope to expand its broadcasts to other Iraqi cities. They want to give a voice to more people who have been voiceless for so long.