Free press is a foreign concept in the new Iraq
TIKRIT, Iraq — Journalism in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq amounted to little more than stenography.
Reporters were ushered into a room and listened to a senior Baath party official speak for a few minutes. No one asked questions. Newspapers would come out every few months, running the same articles that ran in previous editions.
“Our mouths were closed for 35 years,” said Maitham Hussain, owner of Balad Radio and the Al-Khardra newspaper.
With U.S. military aid, Hussain and other Iraqi journalists are attempting to create an independent media in a country that has little tradition of free speech and even less training on journalistic standards and principles.
Despite the obstacles, droves of media outlets have sprung up during the past two years, according to coalition forces and Iraqi journalists.
The Iraqi government has taken notice and tried to use these new sources of information to its advantage. Hussain says he refused money from the Iraqi government out of fear that it would attempt to censor his content.
“I want to keep it free,” Hussain said. “No one will force me what to explain to the Iraqi people.”
Hussain’s content could more aptly be described as “mostly free.” Hussain and several other outlets take money disbursed through the U.S. Army. While the Army does not actively edit content, it does not allow its funded outlets to speak out or incite violence against coalition forces.
However, factual stories where the coalition makes a mistake are permitted, said Maj. Rob Rooker, 39, of Richmond Hill, Ga.
Rooker, a fire support officer with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, is tasked with organizing and disbursing funds to both independent and government media outlets in north central Iraq’s Salah ad Din province.
Rooker took over the job in February from a psychological operations officer who used to mandate editorial themes each month.
“The reporters would sit down and ask, ‘OK, what do you want us to do?’ We decided right off the bat to step away,” Rooker said.
Rooker also does some editorial coaching. For example, he cited a radio report that an explosion had killed 35 and injured hundreds of people.
Those numbers came from a caller, Rooker said. He suggested that the station call the police, then cross-check with the hospital. The revised tally was six people dead and 17 injured.
The U.S. aid has helped Iraqi radio stations grow respectablesized audiences; however, U.S.- funded newspaper readership remains lackluster. The poor readership should not necessarily be faulted on Iraqi distrust of the U.S. role, Rooker said.
“Is it because we’re funding it or because of nebulous journalistic abilities?” Rooker asks.
Most Iraqi journalists have no background or understanding of investigative journalism, Rooker said. Their increasing ability to ask serious questions as least shows progress, he said.
Journalists like Hussain say they have embraced asking tough questions and holding elected officials accountable. Hussain hosts a radio call-in show every week featuring local government officials.
Callers also notify the station when they spot roadside bombs. The station broadcasts the information to listeners while calling Iraqi and coalition authorities.
Hussain’s overall editorial vision plays well with U.S. objectives: “Our media’s aim is to see every terrorist captured,” he said.
However, he also says he would criticize the U.S. on some points. For example, he would not support letting male U.S. servicemembers search female Iraqis at checkpoints.
Hussain criticizes the softer news that some of his competitors publish; for Iraq to establish a viable media that serves the public, it will need about three more years of media aid, he said.