Frontline World

IRAQ - Truth and Lies in Baghdad, November, 2002

Synopsis of "Truth and Lies in Baghdad"

Undercover in Iraq

Saddam's Family Tree and Son Uday

Are They Helping or Hurting?

Reporting from a Closed State

Coverage of Saddam's Regime

Country Profile of Iraq

Human Rights, Politics, Weapons



The Press in Iraq

• An Overview
• Iraqi Media
• The Reports
• Rare Voices of Dissent
• Essential Reading

Iraqi workers check the al-Zaman newspaper, owned by Uday Hussein, Saddam's eldest son - October 2002.
Credit: Agence France-Presse

by Kimberly Tabor

Not only is the press not free in Iraq, journalists must attempt to gather facts from wary -- and some would say terrorized -- Iraqis who are highly reluctant to criticize Saddam's regime. (Insulting the president is punishable by death.) Here's a brief introduction to the Fourth Estate in Iraq along with links to reports chronicling the country's dismal record regarding press freedom.

An Overview

"As far as the Arab world, Iraq has one of the most restricted medias, if not the most restricted," says Joel Campagna, Middle East program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York City. Indeed, in a region where most countries in recent years have lessened the state's grip on media, Iraq's government continues to wield extraordinary control over the press. "We haven't noticed any change in press freedoms in Iraq," says Campagna. "They've remained consistently poor. The [Iraqi] government has given no indication that it will allow legitimate dissent or criticism."

Reporters Without Borders, a French organization that monitors press freedom worldwide, says that Iraq is one of the 10 countries that it considers most hostile to journalists and independent media. The group says that Saddam Hussein is a "predator of press freedom" and reports that the "Iraqi regime uses every means to control the press and silence dissenting voices." It is, in fact, spelled out in Iraqi law that journalists in Iraq must not make "any declaration or suggestion that might benefit an enemy at the expense of the country."

Uday Hussein, Saddam's oldest son, controls about a dozen newspapers in the country as well as Iraq's most influential television and radio stations. Further, the Iraqi Ministry of Information appoints all of the country's journalists, who must be members of the ruling Ba'ath Party and of the Journalists' Union, which is chaired by Uday. In a move ridiculed by some Western analysts, Uday was elected Journalist of the Century by the union in April 2000.

Foreign journalists who cover Iraq are faced with a variety of obstacles, from government censorship to limits on visa stays, says Campagna. In "Air War: How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media," Franklin Foer, an associate editor of The New Republic, described the process of applying for an Iraqi visa as "labyrinthine":

First you send the Iraqi consulate in Washington, D.C., a copy of your curriculum vitae and passport. If the Iraqis decide that you are eligible to apply, you fill out a form provided by the consulate that asks about your religion and relationship to the American government. During moments of crisis, such as the current one, four separate committees in Baghdad review the application. (The New Republic, Oct. 28, 2002)

Foer says that visas are, in fact, the Ministry of Information's most salient tool for controlling the movements of foreign journalists in Iraq. Another tool is the ministry's provision of "minders," state-sanctioned individuals who shadow a visiting journalist's every move and arrange interviews on the journalist's behalf. Anthony Cordesman, an expert on national security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an analyst for ABC News, has reported that the Ministry of Information "maintains a long list of seemingly private Iraqis who are fluent in foreign languages." Those Iraqis are allowed to give "private" interviews, Cordesman says, and though they may appear to be somewhat critical of the regime, they've been handpicked to serve as mouthpieces for state propaganda.

Al Shabab Radio producers at work
Al-Shabab (Youth) Radio producers at work in Baghdad - May 2002.
Credit: Agence France-Presse

Nevertheless, in October 2002, there were accounts by seasoned Western journalists that the Iraqi public was becoming bold, almost brazen, in its openness. After Saddam granted general amnesty to the great majority of Iraqi political prisoners, foreign correspondents wrote of the seemingly spontaneous protests that erupted outside government buildings. In The New York Times, John F. Burns called the events a "potentially seismic trend," while Anthony Shadid of The Boston Globe labeled it "an extraordinary show of dissent in one of the world's most tightly guarded capitals." (See Rare Voices of Dissent.)

What happened next was old-style Iraqi politics, however. Western news reports surfaced that CNN had been expelled, allegedly for its coverage of the protests. Eason Jordan, a news executive at CNN, released a statement saying that the action was "draconian." Then, Uday Hussein, in a surprise gesture, used one of his newspapers to chastise the ministry for overreacting. The ministry soon backpedaled, and the CNN reporters indicated that some of the pressures on them had been relieved.

Now Western analysts are left to ponder the long-term effects of the protests and the attendant media coverage. CPJ coordinator Campagna is guarded in his assessment.

"I can comment from the perspective of the media. And yes, we did see that the networks were able to report on the protests, and there was a lot of coverage in the U.S. press," says Campagna, which he admits is a new development. "How that translates politically and whether this is going to continue to embolden Iraqis to speak out, we just don't know."

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Iraqi Media

Newspapers: Strictly controlled by the Iraqi government. Uday Hussein controls about a dozen newspapers in Iraq and sits on the editorial committees of some of the most influential dailies.

Radio: Under strict state control. The country's most popular radio station is Voice of Iraq FM, which airs Western programming and is controlled by Uday Hussein. Reporters Without Borders says that the best way for Iraqis to get news is to listen to foreign radio stations in Iraq, such as the BBC and Voice of America.

Internet: Iraqi government is only service provider. Access is available in several cybercafes in Baghdad, but use reportedly is strictly controlled by the security police.

Television: Under strict state control. Uday Hussein runs Youth TV, the most popular of the three state-run stations. Only the country's elite can afford satellite service to view foreign channels, and even then, access to satellite broadcasts is limited.

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The Reports

These are three surveys from press-freedom watchdogs that assail the Iraqi government's authoritarian management of the media.

Committee to Protect Journalists
The Iraqi regime, reports CPJ in its 2001 survey, maintains a "stranglehold" on all of Iraq's media outlets. "Insulting the president or other government authorities is punishable by death," CPJ reports. "Hagiographic coverage of the country's political leaders and vilifications of their enemies fill the press." CPJ bases its report on its own independent research and on information from foreign correspondent contacts in the field. Read CPJ's entire 2001 report on press freedom worldwide.

Reporters Without Borders
"For the past 20 years Saddam Hussein has controlled the media with an iron fist and has given them the single mission of relaying his propaganda," concludes Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group based in France. Reporters Without Borders also publishes this index of press freedom, in which Iraq ranks 130th out of 139 countries.

Freedom House
In its 2002 annual survey of press freedom in 187 countries, Freedom House, a New York City-based independent human rights monitor, found that Iraq tied for dead last with Burma, Cuba and North Korea. The group reports, however, that "[s]ome criticism of low-level officials and investigations into official corruption are occasionally tolerated provided President Saddam Hussein or major policy issues are not involved." Freedom House's report is based on data from foreign correspondents, human rights organizations, regional experts, government reports (both U.S. and foreign) and worldwide news sources.

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Rare Voices of Dissent

Shortly after Saddam Hussein granted amnesty to most Iraqi prisoners and all but emptied the country's jails in October 2002, John F. Burns, the New York Times's correspondent in Baghdad, reported on a series of what he deemed "small but remarkable" protests. "The protests over the last two days are the most visible sign of a new and potentially seismic trend: a willingness among ordinary people to speak up," Burns wrote.

What follows is a sample of what Burns heard and wrote about in the few days following the protests.

"The only people who voted 'yes' with their hearts were members of the Ba'ath. ... Everybody else voted out of fear." (Oct. 27, 2002)
--English-speaking Iraqi, disputing the spirit of the Iraqi presidential vote after the government announced that 100 percent of the voters had cast their lot with Saddam Hussein.

"We had eight years of war with Iran in the 1980s, and all we got was death. ... Then we had the war over Kuwait, and more death. Nobody here wants another war. We want jobs. We want peace, not death." (Oct. 27, 2002)
--Out-of-work Iraqi engineer; he told Burns that few Iraqis would support Saddam Hussein if his disputes with the United States plunge the country into another costly war.

"I demand to know where is my son!" (Oct. 23, 2002)
--Middle-aged Iraqi woman at a protest outside Iraq's Ministry of Information a few days after the amnesty was granted.

To read Burns's account of the Iraqi government's unpredictable relationship with the Western media in the New York Times, see "Iraq Offers West's Reporters a Kinder, Gentler Face". (registration required.)

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Essential Reading

"Air War: How Saddam Manipulates the U.S. Media"
From Franklin Foer, an associate editor at The New Republic, this article discusses the ins and outs of reporting on Iraq and the pitfalls of reading the international media's coverage of events. "The Iraqis have become masters of the Orwellian pantomime -- the state-orchestrated anti-American rally, the state-led tours of alleged chemical weapons sites that turn out to be baby milk factories -- that promotes their distorted reality," Foer writes. "And the Iraqi regime has found an audience for these displays in an unlikely place: the U.S. media."

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Kimberly Tabor is an Associate Producer for FRONTLINE's Web unit.

Editor's note: This page was originally published in November of 2002. On March 26, 2003, the page was modified to correct an inaccuracy which listed Qusay Hussein as Saddam's eldest son in the first photo caption.