Making a Free Press in Iraq
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TERENCE SMITH: In the wake of the war in Iraq, efforts are under way to reestablish that country’s government and institutions. There are also efforts to create something that did not previously exist in Iraq: A free and independent media.
To get an update on those efforts, official and unofficial, I’m joined by David Hoffman, president of Internews Network, a non-government organization based in the U.S., that helped organize a recent conference on the subject with Iraqi journalists and others in Athens. And by Deborah Amos, the correspondent for National Public Radio who has been in Iraq for the past few weeks and joins us by phone from Baghdad. Welcome to you both. David Hoffman, tell us about this conference in Athens and what came out of it.
DAVID HOFFMAN: Thank you. It was an unprecedented gathering of Arab and Iraqi media activists and human rights activists from 15 countries, plus the people who played key roles in establishing media in post-conflict situations like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and the like. And they produced a consensus… they produced a set of media laws and policies that would create a public broadcasting entity, a media commission that would lay out the ground rules and prevent hate radio and the like, and a kind of FCC regulatory agency that would be able to give out frequencies for radio and television broadcasts.
TERENCE SMITH: And this road map, if we can call it that, for media in Iraq was it — is that to be delivered to the authorities of the moment in Baghdad?
DAVID HOFFMAN: It will eventually be delivered to either the occupation coalition provisional authority — which rules now — and the U.N., or whatever succeeds them. But we first have to get the same kind of consensus that we got in the Arab world among the Iraqi opposition groups, we have to get that same kind of consensus built in Iraq. So there’s another whole phase in which we take this process back to Baghdad and begin to discuss these draft laws with the people who are going to be most affected by them. And then it will be presented as the draft plan and pretty much everybody has signed on to.
TERENCE SMITH: David Hoffman, did you address the question of trying to establish an independent and objective media in a country that doesn’t have a tradition of it?
DAVID HOFFMAN: This is critical, and we’ve seen this in every post war situation. I mean, we take media for granted here, but if there’s an emergency you’re going to turn on your radio. Credibility is absolutely crucial there, and what you really want to create is some impartial media, some professional, objective media that people can really rely on, because all they’ve been fed for the last 35 years is propaganda. They’re exquisitely sensitive to propaganda and they’ll know it when they see it.
But when an objective news program appears, everybody recognizes that for what it is. In Russia, for example, after the fall of communism there was a program called E-Togi, which was a very first professional objective news program. It immediately gained 95 percent of the market because everybody recognized this was something new, this is something we can believe in, this is something we can trust. And people need that kind of local information, and right now they’re not getting it.
TERENCE SMITH: Deborah Amos, David Hoffman is of course talking about what he hopes will be in the future, but what about now? What’s the situation in terms of newspapers or broadcasting right now in Iraq and Baghdad?
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, there’s more than a hundred newspapers that appear on the street, and they are published by all kinds of groups — religious groups, political parties.
I was at the office of the Independent Association of Iraqi Prisoners, and they have a newspaper. It’s named after the day that President Bush declared the war was over here. They have news, but mostly every day there’s a personal story of a prisoner and what he went through. On television, the occupation forces are backing — and the State Department is paying for — a channel here as well as radio, and the Iranians are broadcasting. They started a news program right before the war started. It’s in Arabic, so it is targeted to this audience. When the fighting stopped, there was nobody else on the air, so the Iranians had a captive audience. Anybody who had electricity could get it.
Now, what’s happened in the last couple of weeks, of course, is that satellites… satellite dishes have been a huge seller, like hot cakes, the proverbial hot cakes. And Iraqis who can afford it are having an international menu. It’s the first time they’ve been able to do it. During Saddam’s time, that was worth a six-month jail term to have a satellite dish.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s on the international menu, for example?
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, they’re watching al Jazeera. They’re watching Arabic channels. And we went to a satellite salesman the other day, and he said they were watching CNN and as he put it “Foxy” News.
TERENCE SMITH: (Laughs) Is there anything, Deborah, in all of this that you see in here that could be fairly described, at least of the indigenous Iraqi media, could be fairly described as objective and independent?
DEBORAH AMOS: There’s a newspaper that is published actually in London translated… it sells translated as the Times, published by a former employee of the Ministry of Information who had a falling out with Saddam. It’s the slickest of the newspapers. If you see it on the streets, especially as we’re driving around, it’s hawked by young men on the traffic circle, so you can see pictures of Elizabeth Hurley on the back page. But it’s pretty good in terms of news. They are getting the daily news in. What’s interesting to me is that ex-Ba’athists are writing in that newspaper, but they have been the most accurate, the most popular so far.
Iraqis are out of money, and so it’s very hard for them to pick up all these newspapers. What you will see is Iraqis standing in front of the newsstands and just glancing at the headlines because there’s so much to read now.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a hunger, Deborah, for news and for, you know, for newspapers and broadcasting?
DEBORAH AMOS: Yes, there’s two kinds. One is, I think Iraqis are overwhelmed and delighted that there is so much variety that they can read and digest. There’s another hunger for how the outside world sees them. This is a population that was fairly cut off. People here listened to the BBC Arabic Service and they did get that, but they really want to see how the rest of the world is reporting on what’s happening in their lives. It’s very interesting to them, and so these satellite dishes are just popping up everywhere. It’s a real revolution.
TERENCE SMITH: Deborah, you mentioned the State Department-sponsored broadcasting effort. Is that taken… as an independent source of news taken seriously or is it looked at as yet another government product?
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, it had a couple of bumpy starts. The first broadcast there was an argument between the local staff and the occupation authorities. They didn’t want them to open the broadcast with the Koran. It was very un-American to start with religion — and the local staff — it was not a negotiable issue. “Of course we were going to start with a religious reading.” So they did that, and I think that they are feeling their way in what they want to report. These are mostly Iraqi exiles, some walk-ins, you know, somebody who has come by the occupation authorities to be a translator and ends up being a journalist. There are some American professionals who are helping them out.
I think the radio is probably more listened to than the television, and it’s only because there are public service announcements. When you need to know that it’s time for the Ministry of Information employees to get paid, that’s where you’re going to find it out, on that radio station. Arabic speakers here tell me that the exiles don’t speak Arabic very well. So it’s rough going on both the radio and the television, but it’s got information that people need to know. “The bank’s open, the police have come back in your neighborhood. You’re going to get your $20 emergency payment.” So people do turn it on because it has crucial information.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, David Hoffman, when you listen to Deborah Amos describing this and it sounds as though it has a robust and almost Wild West quality to it with all these newspapers springing up, how does that contrast with what you’re trying to establish and the plans you were trying to lay out in Athens?
DAVID HOFFMAN: Well, it’s really good to have a very unregulated print industry because there’s no reason really to regulate the print other than to stop any kind of hate articles or incitements to violence. But when you have a limited spectrum, a limited amount of airwaves you really need to have a regulatory authority, like the FCC, that’s independent that can give out licenses to people for that limited space. Otherwise it gets very chaotic and the signals get crossed, and the wrong people end up being on the air.
But when I was listening to her, I’m really… I’m trying to imagine what it’s like to live under a dictatorship for so many years and then what democracy really means is not really the elections that may come a year from now or something like that and you spend one day and cast your vote; the greatest experience from the people who transition from a dictatorship to a democracy is the media. This is the biggest change in their lives — that they’re getting real information, that they’re hearing real debate, that there’s some transparency, and some sense that people can share in the nation’s destiny in some way. If you’re cut off from that kind of information, it’s terrifying. But when you start to have hundreds of sources, as Deborah was describing, then you really begin to experience what the new society is going to be like.
TERENCE SMITH: We’re obviously going to have to stay tuned to see what does, in fact, emerge. David Hoffman, Deborah Amos, thank you both very much.