Free media blossom in Iraq city

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

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

There were once three major newspapers published here in Kurdish, according to Ghareb, but all of them closed down after Mr. Hussein's branch of the Baath Party rose to power in 1968. Papers in the Turkmen language were also forbidden, and the only publication available here, besides government propaganda published in Baghdad, was a weekly used for "Arabization purposes," Ghareb says, a reference to the Baath Party's policy of moving Arabs from southern Iraq into what was a primarily Kurdish city.

"The paper would show that this city was only an Arabic city. It boasted how the government was doing good services for the people in Kirkuk and how everything was going well," says Ghareb. "They did it so people would get an inaccurate picture."

All of Iraq's neighbors live with varying degrees of media restrictions, while some, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, treat mass media primarily as an organ for relaying the government's version of events. But Hussein heightened media control to almost farcical levels.

Last year, the US-based Freedom House organization noted Iraq as a front-runner among the world's most repressive regimes. Hussein's oldest son, Uday, served as head of the Iraqi Journalist's Union and owned 11 newspapers, as well as television and radio stations. The papers always ran pictures of his father on the front cover, sometimes the same one day after day. Insulting the president or senior government officials was legally punishable by death.

Now, in a country accustomed to seeing the media as a tool of regime control, an Iraq under a US-sponsored rebuilding program will have to contend with encouraging press freedoms as part of the larger "de-Baathification" process.

"It is hoped that there will be much more freedom of expression in Iraq now, and there will be a more free press emerging," says Khaled Chibane, a member of the Middle East department of Amnesty International in London. "But until there is an official authority in place, there is a power vacuum, and people are mainly expressing themselves in the street. Once things settle and some sort of authority begins to appear, people will start to address the issues of press freedom."

Not only Kurds are enthusiastic about the unshackling of information access in the regime's wake.

Two ethnic Turkmens - whose language is an offshoot of Turkish - are checking out new satellite dishes on the steps of Salih's store. They say they've already bought one and are enjoying watching television stations from Turkey. "If we turned on the television in the past, the only news was what Saddam did today," says Sabah Nur eh-Din. "We had only two channels. It would have been better to turn the television off and just paste up a picture of Saddam on the screen."

His friend, Abbas Ali, concurs. "We used to go to sleep at 10 p.m. Now we stay up until 4 or 5 a.m. because we can't get enough." Still desperate for war news, they tune to CNN, BBC, and what appears to be a local favorite, Fox. They like it, people here say, because it has been the most supportive of the war.

For many here, the only foreign channels they can understand are in Arabic, and they are deeply resentful of the most prominent one, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera.

Abu Bakr Mohammed Amin, an elderly man in a red-checkered headdress visiting Salih's television shop, gives them a dismissive flick of the wrist: "They only knew how to support Saddam," he says.

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