The Magazine

Free the Iraqi Press!

From the May 17, 2004 issue: The last thing they need in Baghdad is another statist medium.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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AS IF THE COALITION in Iraq didn't have enough problems, on May 3 most of the staff of al-Sabah (Morning), the daily newspaper published with support from the Coalition Provisional Authority, walked out. Ismael Zayer, the paper's editor in chief, announced that a new, independent daily would be established, to be called al-Sabah al-Jedid (New Morning). Zayer moved his newsroom to a private house.

The story of al-Sabah, which claimed the largest daily circulation of any newspaper in Iraq, dramatizes numerous questions about how the Coalition can help construct a modern, stable, prosperous, and democratic country on the ruins of the Saddam dictatorship. These include: Can Iraqis be trusted to build new institutions? How responsible will Iraqis be in handling media? How much do foreigners need to control? Or can foreign officials simply act as mentors and advisers? Even after the scheduled "Iraqification" on June 30, such questions will remain.

Iraq now has between 100 and 200 newspapers and newsmagazines, depending on who counts. Iraqi media are often dismissed as low in quality; those who want to judge for themselves can read English-language summaries of front-page newspaper stories published daily by the Iraqi Press Monitor, at iwpr.net/index.pl?iraq_ipm_index.html. Al-Sabah itself has a website with an English page at alsabaah.com. There is also a considerable number of independent English-language websites and blogs coming out of Iraq.

Al-Sabah was created in May 2003, after the liberation of Iraq, with help from the Mare Foundation, a Netherlands NGO with a history of supporting Iraqi journalists in exile (marefoundation.org). Zayer himself had worked in Europe as a journalist for years. Early on, al-Sabah became one of three media outlets maintained by the CPA under the umbrella of the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), the other two being a television channel, al-Iraqiyah, and a radio network.

The IMN has inherited the staff and facilities of the Ministry of Information of the former Saddam regime. This is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to personnel. Under many dictators, media and other professionals have had to accept submission, against their will and conscience, in order to survive. Many of these people can be trusted to work as responsible journalists under free conditions. More problematic is the legacy of bureaucratic government control over the media sector.

Al-Sabah and the TV and radio components of the Iraqi Media Network have been administered since mid-January 2004 by the U.S.-based Harris Corporation, a producer of communications equipment. When the contract to run the IMN was put up for bid in the United States, however, it specified that the daily newspaper would be independent within a year, operating free of American subsidy, and on course to be privatized.

Al-Sabah's editor and staff welcomed this. They did not want the paper to remain dependent on American financial aid or to be seen forever as the voice of the Coalition.

In March, a rival newspaper, the daily al-Mutamar (The Congress), published by the Iraqi National Congress and considered the mouthpiece for Ahmad Chalabi, criticized al- Sabah. Al-Mutamar charged that Iraqi government ministries unfairly subsidized al-Sabah by giving it exclusive contracts for government advertising. Yet however its competitors viewed it, al-Sabah was clearly the dominant paper, printing between 40,000 and 75,000 copies per day and claiming millions of hits on its website. Al-Sabah got a new printing press early this year, and was preparing to launch itself into the world of free media. Zayer and his staff were confident of their ability to publish on their own, gaining revenue from advertisers.

Then came bad news. On March 20, the Coalition issued Decree Number 66, signed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, turning the Iraqi Media Network into the Iraqi Public Service Broadcaster, a government media enterprise equivalent to the British Broadcasting Corporation. Zayer and the al-Sabah staff professed shock that, under the decree, their newspaper would become a state-owned newspaper, with no prospect of the promised privatization.

Around the same time, the upheaval in Falluja and the confrontations between the Coalition and rebels elsewhere in Iraq were making their work--given their reputation as Coalition apologists--especially dangerous. Three al-Sabah workers were killed, five bombings were attempted and prevented at the al-Sabah building in the Baghdad district of al-Qahera, and Zayer himself was the target of two murder plots, according to the Washington Post. Even printers and drivers working for the paper were threatened.