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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 August, 2003, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Baghdad's media explosion

by Matthew Price
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

Believe it or not, when you drive round Baghdad these days you can listen to the BBC World Service in crystal clear FM quality.

An Iraqi boy carrying a newspaper
A range of opinions is available
It is a far cry from the days when Iraqis would try to make out the news through the crackle of the state's jamming facilities.

Radio and television outlets have sprouted all across this country.

New newspapers seem to be published every day.

Baghdad even has the odd internet cafe, but most Iraqis cannot afford to go.

At the offices of "Habaz Booz" the printing presses are churning out the latest issue of Baghdad's only satirical magazine.

Under the former regime, the editor, Ishtar el Yassiri, would never have been allowed to print the publication.

"It is slightly strange for me, of course. I am writing freely. I am not used to this. Everyone is writing what they want. It's good."

She is right when she says "everyone" is writing. Baghdad used to have 15 different newspapers.

Now by all estimates it is well over 100.

And they look a lot different these days.

In the past the party controlled everything. Saddam Hussein's picture had to be on every front page.

Mohammed Hassan
Mohammed Hassan was jailed under the former regime

Now there are images of American troops on the streets of Baghdad. How times have changed.

Out on the street, in the baking sun, Julie Khan is trying to sell subscriptions for her newspaper.

Even Julie, who left northern England and moved to Iraq 10 years ago, is finding it all a bit bewildering.

"This sudden new found freedom is something a bit hard to come to terms with. The idea of democracy is also something very difficult for us as a community to come to terms with."

Almost every sector of society now seems to have a voice.

That, though, comes with a price. Some see freedom as a chance to print anything.

There was for instance the recent report on the sunglasses US soldiers use to see through women's clothing!

Responsible journalists

But other reports are more dangerous.

The al-Mustiqilla newspaper went further, publishing an article calling for all those who collaborate with the US to be killed.

The Coalition Provisional Authority which runs Iraq shut it down.

Not censorship, says their chief spokesman, Charles Heatley.

"When there are clearly incitements we do have words with those concerned.

Iraqi reading a newspaper
Baghdad now has over 100 newspapers

"In every other case where there have been some reports, perhaps a little dangerous, we have had a word and said 'come on, let's be responsible journalists'.

"And in one case the level of incitement was so blatant and so dangerous that we were forced to close a newspaper."

At the rather grand building housing the Iraqi Journalists' Association I meet Mohammed Hassan.

He was jailed for two years for an article he wrote criticising the former regime.

Four months of that he was held in solitary confinement, allowed out of his 1m x 2m cell for just 15 minutes a week.

He believes journalists, and those running the country, both need to respect the new freedom.

"Absolute freedom is when journalists write serious articles which serve the interests of the people. What we're seeing now is what I call 'chaotic freedom'.

And some journalists are facing problems from the coalition because of the stories they're writing."

Newspapers of course are not the only symbol of the new freedom of information in Iraq.

Lack of trust

Those who can afford it, have snapped up satellite dishes. They, too, were illegal under Saddam Hussein.

It means that Arabic TV channels - as well as Western programmes - are now being beamed into cafes and houses in Iraq.

Of course it has been welcomed by most. But not everyone is happy.

Recently the Iraqi head of the US-funded Iraqi Media Network left his post, complaining he did not have enough money to counter what he called the propaganda such channels pump out.

Charles Heatley
Charles Heatley says the Coalition is not censoring the media

"Some of the Arab satellite channels that people are receiving I think are unbalanced in their reporting.

"They do try and stir up opinion by talking about the resistance to the occupation," says Charles Heatley.

But he adds that "the fact there are other channels is an enormous step forward in this country".

Whether, though, the new channels being watched here by Iraqis are able to stir up public opinion as Charles Heatley puts it is debatable.

Despite a thirst for all information, many here say after years of being lied to, they still do not trust anyone.

And certainly not journalists.


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