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Free media blossom in Iraq city

News outlets flood Kirkuk - and satellite dish sales soar - as Hussein's era of censorship crumbles.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2003



KIRKUK, IRAQ

Seven years ago, a customer walked intoFalah Abdulrahman Mohamad Salih's television store and insisted on a barter: One of your televisions for one of my satellite dishes.

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Under Saddam Hussein, who kept an almost Orwellian lid on information, satellite dishes were banned. So Mr. Salih tried to hide the round, white saucer inside some laundry lines. A few days later at 4 a.m, security police came to his door and, with his wife and children crying, hauled him off to prison.

The six grueling months there in 1996 makes these days all the sweeter. Salih was the first shopkeeper in Kirkuk to line up the large white dishes in front of his store, less than 48 hours after the Iraqi dictator's regime withered away. Now at least five stores offering satellite dishes have sprouted around the shopping district, selling 400 to 500 channels for about $350. That's a pricy sum, but in a country craving a window on the outside world, Salih's satellites are selling, quite literally, like hotcakes.

"Now I am a free man," says Salih in halting English. "How could we have lived under this regime?"

In the two weeks since Kirkuk fell to a mix of Kurdish and US forces, free media outlets have been busting out all over: An Internet cafe opened its doors; a radio station called the Voice of Kirkuk started broadcasting part time; a newspaper called New Kurdistan, published in the autonomous northern city of Sulaymaniyah, started circulating here; and people are tuning into several Kurdish television channels broadcasting from the self-rule zone, an offense which in the past could have landed a person in jail, at best.

The race to let new voices be heard is also on in Baghdad, where a new newspaper began its first run on Tuesday. The offices of what was the state-run Al-Iraq newspaper are being used to put out a new daily called Al-Ittihad, meaning unity. But that paper - as well as the radio, television, and newspaper outlets here in Kirkuk - are all being sponsored by one Kurdish political party, the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], which has been spreading its resources from its quasi-capital in Sulaymaniyah to other parts of Iraq.

The development of a culture that appreciates free speech and press freedoms may not germinate overnight. Still, working on limited resources and a tattered infrastructure, the sprouting of media outlets virtually overnight is remarkable. And in many parts of the world, Europe included, it is not unusual for major newspapers to be affiliated with political parties.

Omar Ghareb, the head of the media department for Kirkuk, a city under the de facto civilian control of the PUK, says others will be free to set up shop, too.

"If we have more outlets that are independent, it would be better, in order to represent all peoples, not just one party," says Mr. Ghareb, who is also a journalist. "I'm sure that freedom is here to stay in Kirkuk, and lots of papers will be published, because people here are more cultured than you would think."

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