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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK
Media reflects realities of life in Iraq
By Sebastian Usher
BBC's world media correspondent

Azzaman's front page
Azzaman's front page showing the pollution of Sadr City
The One Day in Iraq project gave BBC viewers, listeners and online users a rare insight into everyday life in Iraq, showing the fears and hopes of the people there - putting a human face on a story that is normally viewed only through the prism of violence and politics.

One aspect of life in Iraq that the BBC focused on was the kind of TV and radio people are able to watch there and how it reflects their lives.

To do this, we watched two of the main Iraqi TV stations throughout the day from the BBC's monitoring centre at Caversham in Reading.

These stations are al-Iraqiya, which was resurrected from the state channel under Saddam Hussein. It is government-backed and funded by the Americans, but intended to be independent in a similar way to the BBC and National Public Radio in the US.

The change has been extraordinary in two years since the fall of Saddam Hussein

The other station is al-Sharqiya, which is privately owned by an Iraqi businessman based in London and Dubai.

The aim of al-Sharqiya is to give Iraqis their own home-grown entertainment with dramas, comedies and music shows as well as the news and current affairs programmes.

Scene from Nightwolves
Nightwolves explores contemporary Iraqi themes

Inevitably the news on both al-Iraqiya and al-Sharqiya provided a constant reminder of the threat of violence and insecurity throughout the day.

The morning headlines had their share of bloodshed - the 0800 GMT bulletin on al-Sharqiya led with three bombs exploding in Kirkuk, killing four people.

At midday, that story was relegated to second place by a suicide bomb attack on two police patrols in Baghdad.

In line with its quasi-official status, al-Iraqiya tried to emphasise a somewhat more positive impression in its bulletins.

At 1400 GMT, it led with an Iraqi government spokesman saying that the current drive against militants, Operation Lightning, had been a success.

'Great appetite'

Much of the news broadcast by the two stations about Iraq was also available on the two main pan-Arab satellite channels, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. For many Iraqis, these remain the channels that they turn to for their news.

They are more trusted to give an accurate picture than the Iraqi stations, which are seen as less professional and more likely to be biased in their coverage.

Black humour in Kurdish newspaper Attaakhi

Both al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have run into trouble with the post-Saddam authorities in Iraq - as well as the Americans, who have continually accused them of stirring up the violence with inflammatory reports.

Analysts say this has only added to their reputation within Iraq - as a source of largely truthful news.

Other satellite stations that are also available in Iraq include the American-backed station al-Hurra, which aims to put a more positive spin on news in Iraq, an Arab-language station, al-Alam, backed by the Iranian government and the Lebanese stations, LBC and Future TV.

Soap operas

The precariousness of life means that following the latest news on TV and radio is essential. People tune in to know which route is safe to take to work or go home each day.

But nothing but bad news becomes a strain and there is a demand for entertainment as well, which al-Sharqiya in particular tries to satisfy.

On 7 June it showed one of its home-grown dramas, Nightwolves.

This may not exactly qualify as light relief, though, as it deals with armed criminals kidnapping people - amongst other things.

As with many of the dramas that al-Sharqiya has been producing in the past year, it reflects the lawlessness of life in Iraq.

One of its most popular shows, the daily soap opera, Love and War, is ending this month.

In the final episode, its hero and heroine finally marry after many vicissitudes, only to be blown up by a suicide bomber as they drive away towards their honeymoon.

Propaganda films

Knockabout comedy and a none too subtle vein of satire form another popular ingredient in al-Sharqiya's mix.

On 7 June the station showed one of its most popular comedies, Caricature.

Its first sketch made fun of press conferences by Iraqi officials, with one of the characters communicating in an absurd strangulated stream of incomprehensible gobbledygook translated by his companion into the usual empty official rhetoric, while both winked at and ogled the female journalists.

Al-Iraqiya's programming was more stolid and - it has to be said - duller on the same day.

It had a long live broadcast from the National Assembly for much of the morning. Interspersing its programmes were short information films.

One such appeal in the afternoon was on behalf of the ministry of electricity. It featured a stilted exchange between a father and daughter looking at how an electric circuit works.

Other such public information films shown on 7 June on al-Iraqiya included a call for mothers to go to clinics to get polio vaccinations for their children and another appealing for Iraqis to inform on militants.

'Militants' parades'

The most compelling and controversial of these anti-militant initiatives on al-Iraqiya has been the nightly parade of alleged insurgents making confessions in a programme called Terrorism in the Grip of Justice.

It is currently concentrating on suspects seized in Operation Lightning.

The scruffy men sit under harsh lights awaiting their turn to confess to a variety of crimes, including murder and rape - as a disembodied voice interrogates them.

It is said to be extremely popular and regarded by the Iraqi authorities as a key weapon in fighting back against the insurgency. Human rights groups say the show patently violates the men's rights.

Front pages

Both al-Iraqiya and al-Sharqiya carry a number of discussions, debates and phone-ins, as well as programmes in which Iraqis are given the chance to express their feelings in the streets of the main cities.

An example of this shown on 7 June by al-Sharqiya was the programme, Diary of a City, which interviewed Iraqis from around the country, voicing their frustrations over high prices and other problems.

The TV stations - which also include a number of regional channels and ones owned by various political parties or ethnic groups - are the main source of news and entertainment in Iraq.

In comparison, newspapers have a far smaller audience. That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of them.

In Baghdad alone, it is estimated there are at least 100. Very few have a readership numbering more than a few thousand.

On 7 June many of the papers criticised various failures of the country's infrastructure.

Azzaman splashed a picture of three women picking their way through sewage in Sadr City in Baghdad on its front page. The headline warned of environmental disaster.

Another paper, the independent al-Mashriq, reported that Baghdad City Council is losing $8m through unpaid business rates.

A Kurdish newspaper, Attaakhi, had a cartoon showing a man dropping a note into a government complaints box. An official tells him: "Don't waste your time. In the current circumstances, you can only complain to God."

The US-backed newspaper, al-Sabbah, urged the media to play a bigger role in building democracy.

Too many papers?

A host of stories across the press gave examples of corruption, criminality and incompetence. That's not to speak of the usual reports on the latest violence.

Last night was pretty quiet. Nothing really happened, which I hear from my family and friends is a good thing
Stephen, Z Bar blog
With so many different newspapers to choose from - most of them connected to one group or another - those who actually read them in Iraq feel that one or two is not enough.

Interviewed on the BBC, the deputy culture minister said she read at least 10 a day.

For a growing number of Iraqis, the internet has become a vital source both of information and entertainment - and a way to express their own feelings. And as part of One Day in Iraq, the BBC looked at a number of blogs.

Many of these sites are in English - and range from highly political and analytical blogs to ones that detail the everyday events of Iraqi life.

Faiza, the writer of the blog, Family in Baghdad, made these comments: "If you have met an Iraqi man or woman, coming from Iraqi new government, you will hear another stories, they will say: 'Oh yes, we have occupation force in our country, but we are happy, and everything is going well!' If I have met anyone from any country on this earth, I could say: 'How come? Can you believe that a nation can be happy with its occupier?'"

Blogs by foreign workers and soldiers - especially from the US army - also give an insight into what is happening.

A US soldier, Stephen, had this to report on the Z Bar blog: "Last night was pretty quiet. Nothing really happened, which I hear from my family and friends is a good thing."

Extraordinary change

It is clear that Iraqis have extensive media resources to draw on both for news and entertainment - much of which reflects their lives in ways that were unthinkable under Saddam Hussein.

It is far from perfect - in terms of news, there are still important restrictions on Iraqi journalists, including pressure from both the Iraqi authorities and US troops and the insurgents.

Death, abduction and imprisonment are all daily realities for Iraqi reporters.

The entertainment provided by Iraqi TV and radio stations is developing fast, but in some respects remains rudimentary. The number of newspapers is huge, although the reliability and general interest of much of what is published is limited.

Blogs provide an outlet for a growing number of Iraqis to express their thoughts and feelings - although internet use remains expensive.

But the change has been extraordinary in the two years since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

And it is perhaps too much to ask for the media not to share the chaos and uncertainty that permeates all aspects of life as it is currently being lived in Iraq.


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