The burgeoning industry has been heralded by US-led occupation forces as one of their major successes in building the new Iraq.

They say the freedom of speech that has followed the fall of Saddam Hussein is an essential building block for a future democracy.

This week, US occupation administrator Paul Bremer announced the creation of two commissions which will regulate publicly-owned media to ensure its quality and that it is free from political control.

But experts say Iraq's new media offers more in the way of quantity than quality. And the political bias and amateurism that is so manifest in its pages and across its airwaves tends to leave the public cold.

For now at least, Iraq has easily the freest media in the Arab world.

"All the new Iraqi newspapers should show the world what the Iraqis are suffering under American occupation. There is no democracy and freedom here"


Hamid Abid Sarhan,  Journalist, al-Mashriq newspaper, Iraq

There are more than 200 newspapers in Iraq compared to six during the time of Saddam Hussein.

These range from Al-Sabah, a pseudo-official Coalition Provisional Authority newspaper, to political party papers and more independent outfits.

The papers are not as boring and sycophantic as many found in more "developed" Arab nations, which give copious news space to praising the region's rulers.

They do occasionally feature investigative reports - there was recently a successful expose of school kidnappings in the English-language Iraq Today.

Meanwhile, the public broadcaster - al-Iraqiya - is often derided for its shoddiness and cannot compete with the standards of satellite channels Aljazeera and al-Arabiya.

'Propaganda organs'

Nevertheless, the Americans say the quality of Iraqi journalism will improve with time and it has been a significant achievement to produce an environment in which free speech can flourish.

Iraqis are having a hard time
understanding what free press is

Bremer said on Thursday he is determined the new Iraqi media will not regress into the propaganda organs which existed under Saddam.

On the other hand, the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, which trains journalists in Iraq, says Iraqis are having a hard time understanding what a free press is all about.

The organisation says the idea of reporting - of independently gathering news - is still alien to most Iraqi journalists.

As a result, Iraq's newsstands are dominated by sensationalist tabloids and political party newspapers that promote their own agendas. None of them address the issues of concern to the Iraqi public in a substantive, fair or impartial way.

American claim admonished

Hamid Abid Sarhan, a journalist at al-Mashriq newspaper, says the new Iraqi media is far from the success story the Americans claim.

Hamid Abid Sarhan, says his paper,
al-Mashriq, is 'anti-occupation'

Al-Mashriq, which enjoys a readership of 25,000, was set up three months ago and claims to be "independent". However, Sarhan says it is also fiercely anti-occupation.

He told Aljazeera.net: "All the new Iraqi newspapers should show the world what the Iraqis are suffering under American occupation. There is no democracy and freedom here."

And he said the press is not as free as most people think.

"It is dangerous if you write something bad about the Americans. They don’t allow you to criticise them too harshly. So there is still censorship but of a different kind."

He added: "Many of the papers are owned by political parties and the viewpoint found in them is the viewpoint of the political parties. So Iraqis don’t trust what they are reading.

"The effect of this is that most Iraqis get their news from Aljazeera and al-Arabiya because they know that they tell the truth".

Decline in journalistic standards

Iraqis agree the increased freedom of expression in the country has been one of the benefits of US-led occupation.

But for the time being official state-sponsored propaganda has been replaced by unsubstantiated rumour-mongering and biased reporting.

Dr Liqaa Meki, from Baghdad University's College of Journalism, said the last year has seen a serious decline in journalistic standards.

"After occupation there was no control and it was a bit of a free-for-all...because of this there are a lot of tabloids which rumour-monger, and print conspiracy theories and blatantly false stories. They don't tell the truth"

Dr Liqaa Meki,
College of Journalism,
Baghdad University

"After occupation there was no control and it was a bit of a free-for-all. Now anyone feels that they can be a journalist. There are no standards anymore, no training and no ethics. But journalism is a very hard and a very important job so only trained people should be trusted with it.

"Because of this there are a lot of tabloids which rumour-monger, and print conspiracy theories and blatantly false stories. They don't tell the truth. What is needed is a framework of laws and training to regulate the profession."

He added: "There is also no good way of circulating papers. Papers that are printed in Baghdad reach Basra in the afternoon which is too late.

The international boycott that followed Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait also left another legacy.

"With sanctions and the devastation of wars, circulation started to go down because there wasn't the equipment or paper to mass produce newspapers. So people got out of the habit of reading. We have to rebuild that relationship between the reader or viewer and the media."

Whether it recovers depends hugely on the direction Bremer's new commissions will take. The danger is that since they are being set up by the occupation authorities they may be discredited before they are even born.