BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Monday, before a group of disabled veterans, the President referred to a campaign pledge.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I made it clear that by August 31st, 2010, America’s combat mission in Iraq would end.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The mission will soon be largely diplomatic, nurturing Iraq’s fledgling institutions. In a 2005 speech, President Bush talked about one of them.
PRESIDENT BUSH: All successful democracies need freedom of speech with a vibrant free press that informs the public, ensures transparency and prevents authoritarian backsliding.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now, five years later, how vibrant are the Iraqi media? Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR. She recently published a paper for Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center, titled Confusion, Contradiction and Irony: The Iraq Media in 2010. She said that in the era of Saddam Hussein, media was totally controlled and satellite dishes forbidden.
DEBORAH AMOS: I had a conversation over the summer with a woman who lived in Baghdad under Saddam, and she talks about her family having a little satellite dish, and they would find them smaller and smaller, sneak them up on their roofs. What they wanted to watch was things like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Oprah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about Al-Jazeera?
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, it wasn't so much the news. They really wanted to see what was popular out there.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And they would put the dishes up, and your neighbors would tell on you. She said that it happened to her, and her son had left the country, and she said, oh, that’s not my satellite dish, oh, no, that’s my son’s, because if you got caught, your privilege to travel would be cut off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what happened after Saddam?
DEBORAH AMOS: In 2003 a media revolution arrives. The U.S. spent about a half a billion dollars, the largest effort ever by the U.S. to create an independent media in another country. It was run by the Pentagon, and it was to be modeled on American public broadcasting, but it faltered almost from the beginning. There were contractors brought in who had never run a media company before. They were focused on this public media that was almost immediately taken over by Iraqi politicians. Iraqis call it Maliki TV. All of the people who really look closely at the Iraqi media say that the American effort to make this a public broadcasting system for the whole country failed. The second thing that happened, Brooke, is that the Pentagon didn't pay a lot of attention to the private media that was developing. These private channels were funded by ethnic political parties, by political Islamists, by Arab business interests. So what you have today is Shiite TV, Kurd TV, Turkmen TV, Maliki TV, Prime Minister TV. You can watch Al Sharqiya, which is Sunni TV.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which is the most watched network.
DEBORAH AMOS: It is the most popular network because, well, Iraq has its first media mogul. Saad Bazzaz was the man who founded Sharqiya in 2004. It was the first private channel in the country. When Saddam Hussein was executed by the state, all of his news presenters wore funereal black, and so the government saw that as being pro-Sunni, pro-Saddam, and they closed the station, kicked him out. But here’s the thing [LAUGHS] about satellite television. You really can't kick out satellite television. So he moved the operation to Dubai. He’s been making the best dramas, the best comedies, the best cartoons that appeal to an Iraqi audience. Let me tell you though about another study that’s very interesting about Sharqiya. When you look at Iraqis and do they trust Sharqiya, less than a third of them say that they trust what they see in the news. For state-run television, it’s even worse. Twenty-one percent say that they trust what they see on state-run television, and the rest do not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media echo chambers that we talk about so often are thriving in Iraq. People watch the channel that confirms their own views. And yet the phenomenon is not as strong there as it is here.
DEBORAH AMOS: Indeed, the studies show that Iraqis watch at least five different channels. They are crossing sectarian lines to watch different newscasts. A Harvard professor who’s done these kind of studies in the American media, he uses a wonderful term, which is “cognitive misers.” That’s what Americans are. We are cognitive misers. We don't like to watch stations that don't necessarily agree with our political opinion. It’s too much trouble. And there’s nothing really at stake for us to cross the lines. For Iraqis, there’s plenty at stake. What are the other sects doing that I need to know about so that I can make some serious decisions about is my neighborhood safe? Do I send my kid to school tomorrow? Can I get to my job tomorrow? So it really matters for them to cross those lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The whole idea of a sectarian press is considered anti-democratic, and yet the newspaper environment of America 200 years ago, when our democracy was emerging, was incredibly sectarian.
DEBORAH AMOS: That’s exactly right. And Iraq is mirroring an old system, in particular because it is not yet a commercial system. These channels are all funded by political parties, Islamists, Arab businessmen. Sharqiya may be the most popular because they are the most commercial. And once you become a commercial station, then you do have to broaden your appeal because you just don't have enough consumers in your particular sect. So it is possible that as all of these channels have to survive, not simply by funding of political parties but funding by commercial, that it may open that political space.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Iraqis consume more media and yet they're more skeptical, which makes me suspect that Iraqis may be smarter news consumers.
DEBORAH AMOS: In Iraq, you put a satellite up on your roof and you can watch anything that you can bring down, including al-Qaeda videos, insurgency videos. Anything you want can come into your living room. They are tuned to watching Saddam TV. They know what the code words are. So I think that you are absolutely correct that Iraqis are very, very savvy media consumers, probably more than Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the state of press freedom then, officially and on the ground?
DEBORAH AMOS: It’s free, yet it’s not. Journalists in Iraq will tell you that they know what the red lines are - this is a very common phrase in the Middle East, “the red lines” - and they do not dare to cross them. So you have a great deal of self-censorship. There is a second phenomenon that has been going on now just for a couple of years, and that is government libel suits against journalists, and with crushing, punishing fines. Last year was the first year that the Maliki government actually went after a Western outlet. They sued The Guardian newspaper for an article that by Western standards wouldn't have raised an eyebrow, but an Iraqi court ruled in favor of the government’s case. The reporter who filed that story happens to be an Iraqi. He cannot go back to the country. They don't know what would happen to him if he landed in the airport. They are subject to an 85,000-dollar fine. It is still moving through the courts, but it is really a test of where the government wants press freedom to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can there then be, in a country as bitterly divided as Iraq, a single, relatively uninflected, independent voice to speak to the country as a whole? Do people even want that?
DEBORAH AMOS: Certainly, people on the streets are tired of the sectarianism that put them into such chaos in 2007. I think that Iraqis showed in this last election, where some of them actually crossed the line and voted for people who weren't in their sect, that they would like it to stop. There is no media at the moment that is neutral, not a single one. And younger Iraqis are distraught about it because they do want a unified national identity instead of all of these different narratives. And that is what is pulling the country apart and really does put democracy in that country at risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there a group of journalists in Iraq who are ready to do really solid reporting on the ground? Are they already doing it?
DEBORAH AMOS: There is a younger generation of people who were, you know, in their teen years in 2003, with the American invasion, who actually believe in freedom of the press. There is a journalists’ union there. They have protested in a graveyard because they wanted to show that freedom of the press was dying. They are taking enormous risks. I mean, part [LAUGHS] of the reason that these suits - that the government has been taking them to court is because they have scored. They have done some excellent reporting on corruption in Parliament, in the government. They know what they're supposed to do. They're waiting for the space to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Deb, thank you so much.
DEBORAH AMOS: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: NPR’s Deborah Amos. Her paper for Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center is called Confusion, Contradiction and Irony: The Iraq Media in 2010.