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Iraqis can't believe everything they read
Thu Sep 18, 8:10 AM ET
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By Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY
More than 170 newspapers are publishing in Iraq (news - web sites) at least 30 times more than were allowed during Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s regime.
Satellite television dishes, once banned by Saddam, crowd Baghdad's rooftops and dot its skyline. In stores, coffeehouses and restaurants, TVs are tuned to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the 24-hour, Arabic-language news channels that were previously inaccessible to almost all Iraqis.
Teenagers are surfing the Web at new Internet cafes.
After decades of government-enforced deprivation, Iraqis now have no shortage of news outlets.
But the information gleaned from this fresh crop of media varies widely in accuracy and credibility. Iraqi newspapers are printing everything from unedited U.S. government news releases to outlandish Conspiracy
theories about who's behind the series of car bombings since early August.
Some officials worry that outrageous, rumor-fueled reports are just as likely to be believed as more objective, fact-based accounts. They say misleading news stories fuel rumors and stoke fears that make it difficult to resurrect Iraqi society.
That's why the U.S.-led coalition authority appointed a commissioner this summer to supervise the media. It's also why a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, which is gradually assuming some control over the nation, proposed legislating ethical standards for Iraqi media.
"Iraqis are not being well-served at the moment" by the media, says the council member, Samir Shakir Mahmoud. The people here, he says, are disoriented by the war and the ending of more than two decades of dictatorship. He says they need clear, truthful information to rebuild their lives and their society. "They find themselves living alongside an occupying force with an Iraqi government which has just been announced to them," he says. "They don't know what this government is doing or planning to do."
Iraqis clearly hunger for information.
"Every paper that comes into my hand, I read," says Lena Amer, 23, as she eats lunch at Moonlight, a popular fast-food restaurant in Baghdad.
People have been starved for news from outside Iraq, says Mohammad al-Shaikili, 33, who owns an electronics store on a main commercial street. Under Saddam, banned satellite dishes could be smuggled into the country for a price, but average Iraqis didn't dare. The penalty for having an illegal dish was confiscation and a fine of 600,000 Iraqi dinars about $350, and more money than many Iraqis made in a year. "Maybe 25 people in all of Baghdad received satellite," Shaikili says.
Shaikili was one of them. He watched Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and news broadcasts from Abu Dhabi. "I was a reporter to everyone who didn't have satellite."
Satellite business surged after the war. Shaikili, who sells satellite dishes and receivers, has a waiting list for installation. Business continues to build, he says.
So many options
The media choices have suddenly exploded.
Those with satellite television can watch not only Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, but also the British Broadcasting Corp. and local news from the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Lebanon and elsewhere. Depending on which satellite they aim their dishes at and which service they subscribe to (or steal from), some viewers also receive CNN. The Iraqi Media Network, a U.S.-sponsored television station, is broadcast here over the airwaves. Many Iraqis also get news from Al Alam, a news channel that broadcasts from Iran.
There are newspapers of every shape, size and political persuasion.
Fathala Aziza's shop prints 30,000 copies a day of Al Zaman ("The Times"), 10,000 copies a week of the English language newspaper Iraq Today, 5,000 copies of a Kurdish newspaper Al Ahali ("The People") and 5,000 copies of a weekly called Al Mada ("The Horizon").
Aziza says the newspapers coming off his presses mark "a radical change" from the days of Saddam. Then, the government only allowed publication of four or five newspapers. None dared to criticize the government. Saddam's son Uday vetted the articles, and government guards stood watch at the presses.
Al Zaman is emerging as Baghdad's most respectable and professional paper. Its reporters are experienced, although many worked for the former regime. A little more than half the newspaper is written in Europe, where its sister publication is based. It takes on serious subjects. One issue this summer, for example, had interviews with key Iraqi political leaders, a well-sourced report on the capture of the former Iraqi vice president and an article about the possibility of Iraqis doing business with Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Other newspapers mimic the brash headlines and provocative Conspiracy
theories popular among British and American tabloids. Al Shahid ("Witness") ran side-by-side photos of the dead Hussein brothers, Uday and Qusay, with a bold headline asking whether an analysis will prove they are really dead. Another headline said the CIA (news - web sites) is protecting Saddam because he was a former intelligence agent.
A large dose of skepticism
While officials fear that the freewheeling Iraqi media may dangerously skew public opinion, there's an important reason why such concerns may be overstated: Though they read the newspapers and watch the TV news, most Iraqis seem very skeptical. Many think all media outlets have religious or political agendas.
In truth, many Iraqi newspapers are controlled by political parties, religious organizations and wealthy former exiles with political ambitions.
"We completely don't think of these new newspapers, not even for cleaning," says Hattem Hassan al-Abbas, 73, who owns the Al Talie Cafe. On a recent day, nine old men in traditional Arab robes are in the cafe, drinking tea, playing dominoes and discussing current events.
"The majority of the local press are lying," al-Abbas says. "The newspapers in Saddam's day were lying as well. So we are used to it."
Al-Jazeera ranks "below the median," says Muhsin Hamid Akar, 32, who sells satellite phones in Baghdad. "They present facts from their point of view, not the point of view of the Iraqi," he says. "They made Saddam Hussein into a pan-Arab hero. The big lie of Al-Jazeera continued until the last day of the war."
In their defense, journalists and editors who worked for Iraq-based media during Saddam's time say they have shucked the old restraints and can now concentrate on truthful, accurate and unbiased reporting.
Hadir Al Rubai, a Baghdad-based newscaster for Al-Arabiya, admits she lied during broadcasts while Saddam held power. Al Rubai says she witnessed U.S. forces capture the airport in Baghdad but did not report what she saw under orders from Saddam's censors.
She says she now takes full advantage of press freedom and hopes Iraqis will forgive her past. "It is much better now," Al Rubai says. "We are running after every news item, whether the Americans are happy or not. Our prime target is to report this bad situation."
Al Zaman's editor, Nada Shawket, acknowledges that she and many of her staff worked previously at Iraq's government newspapers, but says she hopes Iraqis will judge the new newspaper by its current content.
"Now we have the freedom to write," Shawket says. "The Iraqi people know that, before, the government was imposing what to write."
'Too free to write what they wish'
Media experts aren't as harsh as many Iraqis in their opinions, but they concede that the quality of the nascent Iraqi media is mixed.
Samer Shehata of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service praises Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya for the professionalism of their broadcasts.
Shehata, who watches both networks regularly, recently saw an Al-Arabiya report that included a previously unseen clip in which Saddam threatened several members of his Baath Party at a party meeting. He says the reporter showed resourcefulness by tracking down one of the men and interviewing him.
Muaid Al-Khafaf, who heads the journalism department at the School of Mass Communications at Baghdad University, says some of the newspapers are amateurish and error-prone, while others are producing good reports.
"The newspapers are consistent with the unrest and confusion taking place in Iraq right now," Al-Khafaf says. "Because there is no system, nothing controlling them, people are actually too free to write what they wish."
Officials from the U.S.-led authority that is administering Iraq say they want a diverse media. "Our goal was to establish a healthy, flourishing free media," spokesman Dan Senor says. "Our goal is not to be the most dominant voice. That's the last thing we want."
But the authorities have also taken actions that wouldn't be tolerated in the USA or other nations where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are zealously protected.
Earlier this summer, the authority issued an edict barring media from inciting violence. Coalition Order 14, titled "Prohibited Media Activity," made it a crime to incite violence against any person; a racial, religious, or ethnic group; women; or coalition personnel or troops. Also banned: advocating the alteration of Iraqi borders by violent means, advocating the return to power of the Baath Party or making statements on behalf of the Baathists. Violators can be sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Iraqi police shut down the Al Mustaqila newspaper and arrested its office manager on charges of violating international humanitarian law and Order No. 14. The newspaper had published an article headlined, "Death to all spies and those who cooperate with the U.S.; Killing them is religious duty".
Coalition officials called the article "inciteful." Iraqi police called it "subversive."
The coalition has appointed a media commissioner, British national Simon Haselock, to establish a media commission that will regulate and train Iraqi journalists. Haselock established a similar commission in Kosovo.
Now Mahmoud, the Governing Council member, says he plans to introduce "some degree of regulation."
"This is not about muzzling the media," he says. "This is about ethical standards. There are lines people should not cross. People should not incite others to violence."