BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In the immediate aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein, there was much excitement about the burgeoning media in Iraq. Where once there were only state-run mouthpieces, endlessly praising the glorious leader, suddenly ordinary Iraqis were offered hundreds of newspapers that ranged widely in focus and quality. With Baathist censorship lifted, journalists are free to practice their craft unimpeded. The only problem -- they're not sure how. Hiwa Osman is an Iraqi Kurd working for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. His job has been to train Iraqi journalists. Hiwa, welcome back to the show.
HIWA OSMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many newspapers and television channels are there now?
HIWA OSMAN: God, it's quite difficult to say, because they pop up by the day, some of them. I can comfortably say there are over a 150 newspapers today in just Baghdad, there are various TV channels, radio stations popping up. There is a huge quantity of media outlets, but the quality is suffering, I must say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And that's part of your job right now, isn't it, to train Iraqi journalists in standard journalistic practice. And you wrote in the Washington Post that the main challenge is getting trainees to understand that neither they nor their opinions count.
HIWA OSMAN: Absolutely. See, the past 35 years or the Baath era, made every journalistic believe that their role as a journalist is to contribute to the cause of be it liberating Palestine, be it defending the borders of Iraq, and the various other causes that Saddam used to come up with every other day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It wasn't really about gathering news, right? They weren't really reporting stories. What did they do?
HIWA OSMAN:Well, under Saddam you could not gather any news. You were fed the news. I have this little story that I enjoy telling. You know, Saddam or Iraq is not unique in this culture of feeding news to its journalists. Before the war, I was reporting for the BBC from Iraqi Kurdistan, and I ran across a Syrian journalist who was asking me to show him where the minister of information was. I said which minister of information you're talking about? He said "Well, where do I get my news?" I said "Which news?" He said "Well, the news that I am supposed to be reporting back to my newspaper." I said, "Well, you just have to go to the street." It was quite a difficult concept for him. His job was to actually either re-write or paraphrase some of the sentences that came from the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Obviously the journalists need re-training, but what about the public? They must be entirely unaccustomed to trusting anything they read in the paper or hear in the media.
HIWA OSMAN: Absolutely, and it's part of the same problem. No newspaper has actually managed to or ever dared to criticize the regime. That's why people stopped buying newspapers. And they resorted to things that were said on the streets, from rumors, conspiracy theories. To this day, getting the public to buy newspapers is quite a difficult task. Iraqi public needs to see credibility before buying the newspapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Right now there's a monumental effort to create democratic institutions in Iraq, and at least our founding fathers here in the U.S. felt you really couldn't have democratic institutions without a free and responsive press. Will the media be up to the task of fostering democracy?
HIWA OSMAN: Well, I've seen this as the chicken and egg argument that I have been having with many of my fellow Iraqis and fellow journalists. Some say it takes an election and a guarantor to hold another election to force journalists to impose a culture of free media and free press. Others say we need free press first, and then democracy will follow. I think once we have the first election in Iraq, with a guarantor that we will have a second election in four years' time, the elected representatives will be afraid of the media; this will create a sense of accountability and the media will be forced to be up to the task of informing the public of what their elected officials are doing and of informing the elected officials what their public may want from them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hiwa, it sounds like you have a big job ahead of you.
HIWA OSMAN: I think it's a tough one, and I'm enjoying every moment of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Hiwa Osman is an Iraqi Kurd working for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, but his job now is training journalists in Iraq. Thanks very much.