Iraq has base to build independent media

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There is a radio station playing the latest pop hits from Europe and America, there are Western TV stations, Western newspaper articles and a Western-style tabloid targeting youth. The city? Baghdad.

U.S. officials and knowledgeable Iraq experts say the job the U.S. faces in recreating media in a post-war Iraq will be very different to the nearest comparison-the task it faced after the entrance of coalition forces in November 2001 to formerly Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

A chunk of the media in Iraq has been run by Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday-whose fate was unknown at presstime-and newspapers get closed for weeks on end by the Ministry of Information for being too critical of the government.

But experts say that building Iraqi media in a country bereft of Saddam Hussein should be much simpler than it was in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, years of war had effectively decimated local media, leaving almost nothing to build from.

"After 23 years of warfare and little ability to reconstruct the infrastructure, there was considerable work to be done in training media and in developing communication infrastructure," said Harry Edwards, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

no local media

Afghanistan had no local TV and still doesn't. It also had little local radio, with its citizens getting much of their information from shortwave or other radio signals beamed in from outside the country. The only major local radio, Radio Afghanistan, was heavily damaged during the coalition action.

Further, what little media existed internally bore no resemblence to Western media. Under the Taliban, people were forbidden to listen to music so none was broadcast.

Although coalition forces retook Afghanistan in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, it wasn't until last June that the U.S. and other international agencies launched a Radio Afghanistan on FM in Kabul and the U.S. is still working on its effort to launch up to 16 independent FT stations across Afghanistan. The U.S. also undertook an extensive training program for local journalists.

Iraq has far more extensive media.

"It's 100% state-owned, very direct and propaganda, and will do only what the regime wants," said Kameron al Dagaragi, chief editor and deputy director of the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Iraq (which broadcasts from Prague). At the same time, he said, the media infrastructure is considerable.

`pulse of youth'

While there are information-oriented radio stations, another FM radio station, run by Uday Hussein and called "Pulse of Youth," plays the latest Western pop songs 24 hours a day.

Baghdad has three TV stations plus satellite TV. It has 10 newspapers and magazines, including one run by the government and another by the main political party. But the main daily Babil, which carries Uday Hussein's daily editorial, also occasionally runs stories by Western papers run without comment.

There is a youth tabloid, again run by Uday Hussein, also called Pulse of Youth, that publishes weekly.

similar to soviet media

Mr. Al Dagaragi said what Iraq media doesn't have is a tradition of independence, but he suggests that in some ways the job of retraining Iraqi media will be more akin to what happened in the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism, than what happened in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has had a media voice in Iraq for several years. Aside from Radio Free Iraq on the shortwave band, AM broadcasts of the youth oriented Radio Sawa coming from Kuwait started months ago. An official of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. media efforts abroad, said there has been anecdotal reports that Radio Sawa is in fact the most listened to Baghdad media.

Separately the State Department has announced plans for a magazine aimed at 18 to 35-year olds to promote cross-cultural awareness in Arabic, though the magazine will go to other Arab countries besides Iraq. Custom publisher The Magazine Group is handling the project.

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