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Independent Press Flourishing in Iraq

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi media was tightly controlled. But that has changed. Today, independent publications are now part of the emerging free press in Baghdad.

The paint is going on the walls, the furniture isn’t yet in the rooms, but this new paper, El Muajaha, the Witness, is already out on the streets. It’s put out by university students.

“What the kids really want the paper to be is a way to explain the world to Iraq, and explain Iraq to the rest of the world,” said Rumzi Kysia, an American working for the sponsoring organization, a peace group called Voices in the Wilderness.

Basic support is coming from small grants from European donors. Facilities are sparse but enthusiasm runs high. “This is our best investigative reporter. If the story is dangerous, Salam is on it,” he said.

This is the headquarters of what was the journalists’ union under the former regime, when journalists worked for the Ministry of Information or were under its control. Shahad Tamimi, the union director, has an office in the looted building.

The older journalists complain their pensions have been cut off. Mr. Tamimi says others simply cannot find work anymore. “What we are concerned about is the private sector in journalism," said Mr. Tamimi. "You know there are many private newspapers and we hope for a new decision or statement to be issued that will guarantee our rights.”

The selection on the streets is broad, from the more conservative Islamic press to locally printed European papers. El Sabah, the Morning, is edited by Ismael Zahir, an Iraqi who spent many years working for news organizations in Britain. He is quick to acknowledge the paper is supported by the American transition team, ORHA.

“The fact that we are very close for ORHA and the construction of the building, the reconstruction of the country and the new administration doesn’t mean that we are their man or their spokesman for them. We are an Iraqi newspaper,” said Mr. Zahir

El Sabah is twice weekly and has a current circulation of 50,000 with plans to double that circulation soon. Its editorial policy?

“The free media principles: to serve the people. To give them the proper information without any kind of intervention or manipulation,” said Mr. Zahir.

El Sabah’s staff is relatively large. Women are plentiful. In a pep talk, Mr. Zahir makes clear what he expects "...facts, just facts.”

Mr. Zahir also is thinking about reorganizing journalism as a profession in Iraq and is trying to reorganize the university teaching of it.

“We can build a sort of, what do you call it, a place where we can have a media, free media, working in a special way, especially to attract a new generation, the youth, and the women, who had been suffering much more than any other part of the society,” he said.