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100 Iraqi newspapers in search of a quote

How can Iraqi reporters balance their articles when the way to 'the other side of the story' is blocked by a US tank? And what was a US corporation with Pentagon links doing with a 'public service' radio and TV station in Iraq?

You're a tyro reporter on the streets and you pick up a juicy tale of alleged police brutality at a petrol station on the other side of town. You head down there and catch the alleged victim. He has lots to say through a mouthful of broken teeth.

Eyewitnesses point out the policemen allegedly responsible – still on the scene. The sergeant tells you the victim tried to run away and was forcibly stopped: "People who run away are bad guys." There's clearly something wrong here, but in the interests of fair and balanced reporting, before you write it up, you call the chief of police and ask him just what does he think his men are doing out there?

It didn't happen in Britain or the US. It happened in Baghdad. And it wasn't cops, but US soldiers who pistol-whipped the man who tried to jump the queue with a petrol can. What was missing from the story – not from this analogy, but from the real one written by an Iraqi reporter for al-Muajaha (The Witness) – was the quote from their commander.

There are scores of such incidents of violence by patrolling US troops reported weekly across Iraq, and you would assume that US army public relations officers would be bombarded with requests for statements from the 100 or so newspapers that have set up in Baghdad alone since Saddam Hussein's fall.

Not so: The PAOs – the so-called Public Affairs Officers – are virtually beyond reach to all of them. The path to 'the other side of the story' is blocked by the US 1st Armoured Division. The PAOs operate behind a ring of US steel in Saddam's old riverside complex of palaces, where they can only rarely be reached, and then only by unreliable and prohibitively expensive satellite phones.

The foreign media have the experience to manage the system, but the Iraqi press tackles a news agenda diametrically different to the internationals.

While the Western media tackles the issues of economic (read oil) development and the assassinations of US soldiers, the Iraqi media is trying to deal with agonising stories of more direct consequence to its readers. What to do, for example, about the chaotic courts system, which as Amnesty researchers note, can keep a traffic offender in a detention pen with murderers for days before his US and British guards can locate and deliver him before a judge? Or the failure of the authorities to stop the unchecked sale of looted medicines in street markets, sold by the poor to the desperate – a trade that poisons, maims and claims lives every day?

None of this is on the PAOs' agenda, whose mission is to spread the good news about the US-British presence in Iraq. But the duty of the authorities to answer questions about these issues, and many more besides, goes far beyond the facilitation of 'balanced reporting' – these are questions that demand answers. And they are not being given.

In frustration one editor has taken to printing accounts of violence by US troops as 'Letters to the Americans' – simply reporting incidents as accurately as possible and ending each one with a public request for the US Army to respond.

The editor, Israa Shakir of al-Iraq al-Youm (Today in Iraq), deals in the same way with the flow of 'irrelevant' press releases from the PAOs – news of public spirited efforts by US forces, including many genuinely sincere folk working off-duty – covering such things as the laying of soccer pitches and the international collection of Beanie Babies for street children.

Unable to contextualise, balance or background any of this, Shakir simply marks it 'News from the Americans' and separates it from her own news – like it was a paid advert.

Lack of access to information from the US forces – not any information, but information that the press wants – has not slowed the Iraqi media boom. Scores of titles are on offer, private radio stations are reappearing and, for those who can afford it, satellite dishes offering access to foreign Arab TV networks are on sale.

This unchecked growth provoked an immediate crisis for the occupation forces' media strategy.

In June, L. Paul Bremer II, the senior US diplomat in Baghdad, released strict rules on the operation of the media. His 'Order 14' comes with a list of prohibited activities, including incitement to political, religious or ethnic violence, advocating support for the banned Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein and publishing material that is "patently false and is calculated to provoke opposition to the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority – the occupation powers] or undermine legitimate processes towards self-government."

Order 14 has been enforced as well, with a string of raids on newspapers, arrests and closures of half a dozen papers in Baghdad and Najaf.

The tough line, hardly surprising given the rising death toll among US forces in Iraq, is in part over-compensation for the Pentagon's abject failure to manage its own corner of the Iraqi media – the state broadcasting network it captured after Saddam's fall.

Both the US and British ran so-called 'psy-ops' (psychological operations) broadcasts in the run up to the war, beaming coalition-approved TV and radio to Iraq by long range shortwave transmitters and from orbiting USAF planes.

The reconstruction of the post-war media was contracted out by the Pentagon to the US defence technology giant Science Applications International Corp (SAIC). But SAIC was chosen for its record in managing psy-ops technology – it had no obvious record in conventional media management, and was supposedly overseen by former Voice of America (VoA) chief Bob Reilly.

But the new Iraqi Media Network (IMN) – essentially a reconstructed Iraqi state broadcaster -was an abject failure under SAIC management. Plagued by management conflicts, missed deadlines, overspending, operated by over-worked, under-resourced, under-trained and sometimes unpaid staff, it delivered a network that could barely cover Baghdad, let alone Iraq.

Not surprisingly, it is derided by the target audience – ordinary Iraqis – who turn instead to the print media and the satellite dish for their news.

The determination of the occupation powers to regain the PR advantage, fired by their failure to win hearts and minds through the IMN, appears to have blinded it to another strategy. The failure of the US authority to tackle crime, economic collapse and the repair of public utilities fuels ever more fiery criticism and dubious opinion in the press.

Both sides are split on the difference between 'incitement' and what counts as 'fair comment'. News-gathering on the ground remains a precarious activity. The CPA is making some efforts to poke holes in the information wall. Tenuous attempts are being made, through Arabic-only CPA press conferences to try and engage with the Iraqi media. And eventually, Iraqi journalists will pick up the newsgathering skills they need to extract news from a complex system, imported wholesale from the media free-fire zone inside the Washington Beltway.

But the general inaccessibility of the US authorities in Iraq gives the excuse for precisely the kind of specious speculation and adoption of rumour as fact that Bremer wants stamped out among the Iraqi media – with jail sentences if necessary.

It's no answer to say that the present system is better than anything Iraqi journalists experienced under Saddam. Today the present system treats the Iraqi journalist with no more respect than it does any other Iraqi citizen.

Rohan Jayasekera is Associate Editor at Index on Censorship and is coordinating the magazine's projects in Iraq and the Middle East.

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