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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 May, 2003, 05:26 GMT 06:26 UK
Rebuilding Iraq's media
By Stephen King
Director, BBC World Service Trust

In the British-controlled southern region of Iraq there is a cautious welcome.

Groups of children wave and sometimes adults give a thumbs-up sign. A youth standing between the carcasses of two rotting camels on the side of the main highway between Safwan and Basra stuck two fingers up.

"They even know the one-finger salute now," commented our driver.

George W Bush broadcasting on Towards Freedom TV
Iraqis are sceptical about some of the channels set up by the coalition

This was my first visit to Iraq - as part of a BBC team organised by the World Service Trust, the charitable international development arm of the BBC which is undertaking a needs assessment of the Iraqi media.

There is a sense of a rapidly dwindling honeymoon period for their new masters amongst the inhabitants of this crumbling southern city.

Rumour, conspiracy theories and misinformation are rife: "The BBC reports that Kuwaitis are distributing humanitarian aid - but they don't report that they are stealing our oil" was the accusation from one group of angry Iraqis.

"My brother saw an unmarked land cruiser where two Arabs with Kuwaiti accents torched shops and buildings - whilst the military looked on" was another.

Where to start?

Part of the problem is to do with the lack of trusted sources of information and with the widespread destruction of the Iraqi media infrastructure; Iraqis have no capacity to produce their own news and information.

The Iraqis we met are sophisticated viewers and listeners. They are sceptical about the weapons employed by the coalition forces in the propaganda war.

TV and radio station in Basra
There has been widespread destruction of the media infrastructure

They recognise that "Towards Freedom TV", produced by the Foreign Office and broadcast from a C-130 Hercules transport plane has its own agenda.

Radio Sawa, the Arabic service from Voice of America, comes in for criticism for its pro-US bias.

Iraqis are desperate to run their own media but after more than 20 years of command and control are not used to taking these decisions.

"Who do you apply to for permission to establish a newspaper?" was a question at a local Joint Council meeting in Basra. "No-one" was the reply - "just set it up."

This is an empowering but also a bewildering response - where do they start?

Eager to get back to work

The 112 staff of Basra TV and Radio have turned up every day to their temporary place of work - a football stadium where the salvaged remains of their TV station are stored. They have just received a $20 emergency payment as public servants.

"We are waiting for someone to tell us what to do," said their new chief Suleiman Hadi who was curiously elected as head by the remainder of the staff in a spontaneous outburst of democracy.

The BBC team: (l-r) Stephen King, Jerry Timmin, Roger Francis, Rob Todd, Mario Almeida
The Trust aims to help Iraqis set up local radio and TV programming

Their technical skills are good - many claimed to have trained in Japan and Europe and are eager to start work again - this time producing their own news and reports - not those controlled by Baghdad.

Prior to 1979 the station produced local programmes but a complex divide and rule management structure imposed from Baghdad meant that even though they all worked in the same building, journalists, technicians and management staff all reported to different heads in the capital.

Despite being public servants they have been at the receiving end of the bitter inequality of the regime. Abdul Kharim Khilallah was the head of production at TV Basra and earned $US3 a month.

A group of 30 local sheikhs, tribal leaders and businessmen met us at the house of Sheikh Mohammed Sobollah Al Saedi, head of the Sa'wad tribe - one of the largest in southern Iraq.

We discussed at length the potential for a local free media - "city stories produced by city people," said one.

"It must reflect our concerns - our culture and traditions," said another.

A sparkle of entrepreneurial activity emerged - "It could carry commercials," said a local businessman.

We discussed the problems of introducing balanced stories - and those which might express opinions contrary to their own.

Telling the truth

These are huge steps in a country which has been deprived of the opportunity to express their opinions.

There is clearly no shortage of people wishing to make their voices heard - introducing confidence in the media to tell the truth and ensuring all views get an airing is the major challenge ahead.

The Trust is now developing a set of proposals to help Iraqis in Basra and Al-Amara re-establish local radio and TV programming.

It is seeking funding to provide small amounts of equipment to resume broadcasting on both TV and radio as soon as possible and to provide training in journalism, in management and in editorial independence over the next two years.


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