BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's at least one country in the Middle East that's proven to be a difficult place for the U.S. government to promote America's image. Under Saddam Hussein Iraq has used its media to isolate its citizens from any views -- outside views in particular -- in opposition to the current regime. The state-run press is not even reporting leaks in the American press detailing U.S. plans to invade Iraq. Joining us now is Asla Aydintasbas, a freelance journalist who writes on Turkey and Iraq. Thanks for joining his.
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: First of all could you give us a sense of the media landscape in Iraq? Is there any semblance of an independent press there?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: No, not within the government-controlled areas at least. The state owns most print and broadcast media, and in fact Saddam Hussein's son, Uday Hussein, is the proud owner of a couple of newspapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So no opposition media at all. No radio, newspapers or web sites run by opponents of Saddam Hussein.
ASLA AYDINTASBAS:There's actually a really thriving media environment, not inside the government-controlled areas, but outside in the north, within the confines of the no-fly zone that was established at the end of the Gulf War and safe havens, Kurdish-dominated areas. There is quite a few private television networks run by the two Kurdish groups and also other groups, for example Turkomans, Assyrians --every minority group. They also have internet access over there which they don't have in government-controlled areas. One of the main Iraqial position groups, Iraqi National Congress, INC, established an opposition television network with U.S. funding not too long ago, about a year ago, and the group has a bitter acrimony with the State Department. The American State Department basically cut off funding and the television has gone off the air. There were some reports actually that it was being picked up within the government-controlled areas. One problem is of course people don't have satellite dishes. It's not allowed. So it's not easy for people to watch television. Radios are common though.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you mentioned radio. Those are probably abundant. Are views in opposition to the government getting through on radio waves?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS:Definitely, and I think that's one of the most effective ways. According to official figures, there are about 5 million radios in Iraq. That's a country of 22 million, and that's a really high figure. But I don't think people get together, sit around a radio and listen to the BBC. Iraq has become very much a Republican of fear in the last two decades, and people really don't want to be very obvious about what they listen to and whether or not they're getting information from outside.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You mentioned Iraq was a Republic of Fear. I understand that Al Jazeera was banned for more than a week not long ago for not getting Saddam Hussein's title right.
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Al Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad was called to the foreign ministry office you're off the air for ten days; we have banned you because -- well one reason was that he didn't refer to President Saddam Hussein with his full title which is actually rather long, and instead President Hussein or the president. And another reason was he didn't refer to the Bath Party as the Arab Socialist Bath Party. He just said the ruling Bath Party. But Iraqis fairly quickly realized that this wasn't a good idea -- to ban Al Jazeera which was a very useful tool for the government in getting their message across to Arab audiences. So sour the relationships with such a key network on such a small matter turned into a big public relations blunder for the government of Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:How are the stories of U.S. military plans to attack Iraq playing in the state-run Iraqi media? Have they even reported the existence of these military documents that lay out various plans to invade Iraq and topple the government?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Well you wouldn't read in an official Iraqi paper, yesterday New York Times reported that U.S. war plans involve special forces going into Baghdad. You would most likely be reading about them in between the lines, and in the form of an official Iraqi response: Yesterday Saddam Hussein said the government is ready and the head of the Air Force said the military are ready to fight any enemy that might come. It would not be a straightforward news format as we know of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And the principal message of the media run by the Iraqi government is we are ready; bring it on if you dare. But who is that message for?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: It's primarily for Pentagon. For example a meeting with Iraq's top nuclear commission means, you know, you don't know what we might have or we're ready and--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hints of weapons we know nothing of.
ASLA AYDINTASBAS:Exactly. And in fact there have been statements by Saddam Hussein's son Uday to that effect last month. And it's also for the larger Arab audience with the idea that such statements would make Saddam Hussein look courageous and boost his popularity which is going through the roof in some Arab countries.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has the opposition Iraqi press in exile or anywhere else reported the leaked U.S. military plans?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS:They have. They just splash, you know, on their newspapers; they broadcast it; they put it on web sites. There is some sense among the Kurdish groups and other groups that you know we're now seeing the fruits of our decade-long lobbying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let me just throw in a question with reference to the interview we did at the top of the show. What do you think would be the best way for the U.S. government to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Well the president has a problem I think on think on this issue. His father at the end of the Gulf War delivered a direct speech to the Iraqi population and said it's time for you to topple your own leader -- rise up and get rid of Saddam -- and Iraqis did listen to him. Soon after that, the administration decided they were going to ret--let the Iraqi military use air power and helicopters to put down the uprising in 19 of its provinces. Now President Bush will therefore think twice before making the same mistake. He will not address Iraqi people directly or call on them to topple their leader until he is sure that Saddam is on his way out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thank you very much.
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Asla Aydintasbas is a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to Salon.com, the Wall Street Journal - Europe, the New York Times and Middle Eastern media. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the rolling heads of media moguls, quandaries over commercials on September 11th, and the man who made TV possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR.
"I Got Rhythm But No Melody"
by Jane Ira Bloom