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Last Updated: Friday, 27 June, 2003, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Iraq's media free-for-all

By Tarik Kafala
BBC News Online

Newspaper stand in Kerbala
Iraqis are embracing the possibilities of a free press and media

All over central Iraq, independent radio and television stations are suddenly emerging to fill the void left by the destruction and collapse of the old national broadcaster.

In Najaf, Kerbala, Kut and Hilla engineers and technicians who used to work for the Iraqi national station have taken over relay stations and started broadcasting.

Iraqis are enthusiastically embracing the possibilities of a free media after years of heavy censorship. Alongside these do-it-yourself radio and TV stations, dozens of newspapers representing every kind of political viewpoint are suddenly available.

For now it's a kind of media Wild West. Anyone who can grab a relay station and get a radio or TV station off the ground becomes a station manager. Anyone who can get hold of a printing press, or even a photocopier, is suddenly a newspaper editor.

Kerbala control room
TV and radio stations are being run on outdated, borrowed machinery
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the US or UK military only step in to close down a station or newspaper if it is found to be promoting the Baath Party, the party through which Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, or if the output incites violence.

That is the extent of the current media regulation - the CPA clearly has more urgent priorities. But this may not be the case for long. The coalition is already consulting media law experts on a regulatory framework for the media and may soon be licensing papers, stations and frequencies.

Ingenuity

Under the old regime the regional stations simply relayed programmes produced in Baghdad. The system was heavily centralised and tightly controlled.

The people taking over the relay stations are showing extraordinary ingenuity and determination.

We are an independent station. The CPA can't tell us what to say. They want us to tell everyone how good the governor they have appointed is when he is a crook and a Baathist
Ali Kashif al-Ghitta
Najaf TV and radio

In Kut a 67-year-old man spent seven hours fitting a radio aerial 55 metres up an electricity pylon. The pylon has no ladder and was not designed to be climbed.

Abu Musa, a short man built like a miniature weightlifter, gives himself the grand title of "mast manager, Kut Radio and Television".

"It was hot and very windy, but I tied myself to the girders. I took water up with me. There was no electricity running through the wires, so there was no real danger. I was more worried about the American planes and helicopters," he said.

Abu Musa and his colleagues spent the three weeks immediately after the collapse of the Iraqi regime hiding two trucks, one containing a TV production facility and transmitter, the other a radio station and transmitter.

Kut TV and radio on the back of a truck
Kut TV and radio employees spent weeks hiding their mobile station from looters
They were built by the Iraqi regime in anticipation of the bombing by US and UK planes of the fixed TV and radio stations during the invasion.

When the regime evaporated and the looting began, Abu Musa and others moved the trucks every night, hiding them under camouflage under trees, in ditches and in isolated farm building to keep them safe.

Now they are running Kut TV and Radio from inside the walls of the compound of a former Saddam Fedayeen headquarters, which has been looted right down to the door frames.

Independence

At the moment the new stations are mainly broadcasting music, Koran and poetry readings, and programmes recorded from various Arab satellite stations - particularly news programmes and football matches.

In Najaf, Kerbala and Kut station staff were making rough and ready TV and radio reports on topical local issues - the high price of public transport, the re-opening of a school, CPA attempts to restore water and electricity, some insect that is attacking the local date trees ("from Iran," I was told).

Baghdad video library
The Baghdad video library after the looters visited
The computers, video recorders, cameras and everything else used to run the station are borrowed from the staff or locals who want to support the station. Each piece of kit has a white label on it recording the owner's name, their address and the date of the loan.

Each station insists it is the first independent station in the new, free Iraq.

In Kerbala, station manager Kahlil al-Tayyar said that the Najaf station was being paid for by the Iranians. In Najaf, Ali Kashif al-Ghitta insisted the station manager in Kerbala was in the pocket of the Americans. The Najaf station's motto is "peace, reform, neutrality".

In fact the CPA was trying to establish good relations with all the new stations in the area. l US or UK soldiers are making great efforts to encourage these stations, sometimes paying salaries, sometimes supplying broadcast equipment.

Propaganda or public information

The arrangement is that the coalition forces provide some technical and financial backing in return for the broadcast of public information announcements that the CPA needs communicating to Iraqis.

Wooden radio studio in Baghdad
A makeshift wooden radio studio in Baghdad
This arrangement does not always go smoothly. The station manager in Najaf said the US Army was leaning on him to carry what he viewed as pro-coalition propaganda.

"We are an independent station. The CPA can't tell us what to say. They want us to tell everyone how good the governor they have appointed is when he is a crook and a Baathist," Ali Kashif al-Ghitta said.

The US Army insists it is only trying to get essential information across to Iraqis.

The threat of the withdrawal of salaries paid by the CPA hung over the conversation.

And there are other dangers. A van with the station's logo on it had its back windows shot out. According to the station manager local political groups were trying to intimidate the station into reporting in a certain way.

Baghdad TV

In the capital, what is left of the Iraqi national station is being taken over by the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), a radio and TV station sponsored by the coalition.

Journalists at the IMN insist they are completely independent of the CPA. In its earliest days, the IMN battled with coalition officials who tried to screen broadcasts. Hero Talabani, the wife of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, was briefly given a leading editorial role until the IMN staff threatened to walk out.

Of course the coalition want their own channel and they need to get their message across. We won't really have a free media until the occupation is over
Iraqi journalist

On the day I visited the IMN, they were out on strike. The station had been on air for four weeks without any of the staff getting any pay at all. The strike was ended when the CPA paid salaries for about 50 staff.

The coalition plan is to relay the IMN's broadcasts across the country, making it into the new national broadcaster.

Relations between coalition officials and the IMN have improved recently. The CPA is spending tens of millions of dollars on installing production facilities, equipping offices and strengthening transmission. And now it is even paying salaries.

Iraqis who have watched the channel are aware that it is backed by the CPA and treat it as such.

"What do you expect? Of course they want their own channel and they need to get their message across. We won't really have a free media until the occupation is over," one Iraqi journalist said.


BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala has recently returned from Iraq where he carried out a study of the Iraqi media for the BBC World Service Trust.



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