Iraq: Tuned to the sound of freedom

From football phone-ins to consumer complaints, Radio Dijla is flourishing within the constraints of a deeply unstable Iraq. Donald Macintyre reports from Baghdad on a broadcasting phenomenon
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At 12.50 yesterday afternoon, football fan Mohammed Jal phoned his favourite radio station to discuss last week's 3-0 second round elimination of his national team by China from the Asian Cup. "I'm satisfied with the team," he said. "But I'm not satisfied with their manners." He didn't like the way the players fought with their opponents-and in particular the punch up between the goalkeeper and a Chinese forward. "This is a sports match," he added, "not a field of battle." Since this is Iraq and the show was going on out on Baghdad's number one talk radio station, the martial comparison can hardly have been lost on its listeners.

At 12.50 yesterday afternoon, football fan Mohammed Jal phoned his favourite radio station to discuss last week's 3-0 second round elimination of his national team by China from the Asian Cup. "I'm satisfied with the team," he said. "But I'm not satisfied with their manners." He didn't like the way the players fought with their opponents-and in particular the punch up between the goalkeeper and a Chinese forward. "This is a sports match," he added, "not a field of battle." Since this is Iraq and the show was going on out on Baghdad's number one talk radio station, the martial comparison can hardly have been lost on its listeners.

More to the point, however, the fans ringing into Radio Dijla yesterday expressed their views with a candour which, even on the subject of football, they might have hesitated to do less than two years ago. Umm Noor, a sports graduate and one of several knowledgeable women listeners to call in yesterday, said: "I'm not satisfied with the team. They didn't play very well. They were very nervous - maybe because of the big contingent of Chinese fans." The next listener disagreed. "I don't blame the team," he said. "I blame the coach. He didn't pick the right players."

At the studio microphone - as he is for a remarkable seven hours a day discussing everything with his listeners from politics to pop music, sewage to suicide bombing, corruption to conjugal disharmony - was Baghdad's top jock, Majid Salim. Before starting out on "Consultation" - a daily quick-fire, one-hour show in which listeners call in with pithy answers to a question of the day (yesterday's being "are you satisfied with the performance of Iraq in the Asian Cup"). Mr Salim had just had only a few minutes of raucous techno station jingles during which to stretch his legs after the two hour social programme he co-hosts with the female presenter, Shena al-Amri.

Like much of Radio Dijla's output, yesterday's edition afforded an unusual insight into the more humdrum problems faced by Baghdad's citizens 16 months after the capital's fall to US forces. Abu Sami (many phoners-in like him and Umm Noor use their familiar names, father of Sami, mother of Noor) complained about the Kasmiah telecommunications site because his phone had not been working for three months; Umm Ali wanted to know why her claim for benefits for her disabled child was still awaiting a ministerial signature four months later; Sajah from Jihad district was furious that every time her phone rang it rang in four other apartments too, allowing her neighbours to listen in to her calls; a second Umm Ali took issue with a change in the higher education system since Saddam Hussein's days, which meant that students who failed in one subject were no longer allowed to resit the exams without having to go down a year and start all over again; Yet a third Umm Ali was particular bitter that her electricity had been down for two days because of a bust transformer since the electricity directorate was right opposite her house. And another listener claimed that a repairman wanted a hefty bribe to restore her street's electricity supply.

While the station confronts ministers and public officials with complaints in its regular interview slots, and sometimes intervenes directly to help particularly needy listeners, Majid Salim argues that listeners appreciate the chance to air their grievances at all. Not surprisingly, given the continuing failure to reconstruct Iraq's utility infrastructure, electricity leads the list of complaints, with with water and sewage second and health services third. Since Radio Dijla started on the air in early May, Salim says: "I would say it has even reduced the number of demonstrations because this is a place the public can freely express their opinions." He adds: "The nicest comment I get from some of my listeners is that I am the voice of the poor." He says that in his more intimate late night show, from 11pm to 2am, he has managed to reconcile four divorced but lovesick couples beside patching up quarrels between friends and relatives.

But Radio Dijla is much more than just a vehicle for the highly extrovert Salim. In the greater Baghdad area it has already in its three-month existence outstripped its main rivals - not only Sawa, the US-run Arabic station which is widely despised by many Iraqi listeners, but also the BBC's Arabic Service. Proclaiming its independence from all parties - and having refused lucrative funding offers from at least one political grouping - it is now breaking even, and hopes to be in profit within six months. It has secured an advertising contract from Kelloggs and the Iraqi mobile telephone network as the latter prepared to confront the competition that will come when it loses its monopoly - competition that can in turn only help Dijla's advertising revenue.

To understand its success, you have to know something of the unusual history of the station and of Ahmad al-Rikaby, the fast talking 35-year-old journalist and former Iraqi exile and Saddam opponent who brought it into being. In its way, it is a classic paradigm not only of the new freedoms brought by the toppling of of Saddam Hussein - but also of some of the avoidable errors the Americans have made since then.

Rikaby, who before the war had a well-paid job as the London bureau chief of Radio Free Iraq, an arm of the US-funded Radio Free Europe, was a strong supporter of the war. More than that, through much of 2002 he was a secret participant in the media subgroup of the post-war planning team under Richard Warrick, the US State Department official whose detailed report on how to run post-war Iraq was junked under Pentagon influence and who the first CPA head, Jay Garner, revealed much later in a BBC interview he had been ordered by the Defence Department not to have on his staff. "I had a vision of an Iraqi BBC - state owned but editorially independent and objective," he said this week. It wasn't to work out quite like that.

In February last year, Rikaby was summoned to Fort Bragg from London, and after an ominous delay in which no one seemed to notice his presence he says he was suddenly told as chief-designate of the new US-backed Iraqi Media Network that the invasion was happening in a week and that without telling anyone why it was so urgent, he should assemble a small team of broadcasters - mainly from Detroit's Iraqi community - to fly to the Gulf.

After the invasion, Rikaby, now in Kuwait with a small team, was able, with mixed success, to make some intermittent news programmes for broadcast through a transmitter in Umm Qasr. Then with Baghdad's airport supposedly under US control - though still under regular attack from Saddam's forces, he was flown in by the US forces in time to make the first radio transmission from a tent at the airport. As producer, editor and presenter he uttered the infant station's first words on the airwaves on 9 April: "Welcome to the new Iraq. Welcome to an Iraq without Saddam Uday, or Qusay."

Rikaby was inevitably partly dependent on the skills of some Saddam-era broadcasters - though he was determined to keep familiar faces off the screen at least until the network's editorial values were firmly established. He is still proud of weaning some of those journalists off their previous subservience, recounting how he asked one scriptwriter to rewrite an Arabic public service announcement he himself had drafted. The scriptwriter came back some time later trembling with fear and begged him not to be angry. "The guy had changed the word 'trash' to 'garbage'. I told him if I hadn't trusted him I wouldn't have asked him to rewrite it, that he was free now. He started crying."

But it wasn't the journalists who were the problem. There were constant rows over money with Science Applications International Corporation, a company wholly without media experience but which the US administration hired to manage the network. So much so that Rikaby found himself pretty well fomenting a strike by Iraqi staff whom SAIC were paying a mere $60 (£33) a month compared to the $600 to $1000 a day the Western media consultants were earning.

There were suspicions about several hundred million dollars which had been destined for transmission equipment which was unaccounted for. And there were arguments with US officials over whether the station should be providing propaganda or objective news, as Rikaby wanted. In August, Rikaby resigned, saying that without adequate funding or staffing, the network was failing in its "duty to present objective news - the truth".

Rikaby still insists he believes that the Bush administration wanted - and still wants - a free broadcasting network and that prospects for Iraqi state radio and television under a new consortium, which includes the Harris Organisation, have improved.

Current omens, however, are, to say the least, mixed. Two of the network's board members are close lieutenants of Iyad Allawi, the US-backed interim Prime Minister, including his former head of security, Ibrahim al-Janabi, who has issued at least one alarming warning in recent weeks of wider media censorship.

Whatever the future of the Iraqi Media Network, Radio Dijla, the station Rikaby energetically put together after he quit, is flourishing within the severe constraints of a deeply unstable Iraq - attested by the 24-hour guard of AK-47-brandishing security men outside the studio. Karim Yusef, the man Rikably he appointed as his deputy, says the station has five principles which are the only constraints on otherwise complete freedom of speech: no encouragement to kill; no other incitements to violence, no libellous accusations against anyone who cannot defend themselves; no encouragement of ethnic hatred and no swear words. The audience seem to go for it; a telephone poll on on the Baquba bombing last week adduced 80 per cent opposition with special emphasis on the unacceptability of killing innocent Iraqis.

As it happens, Majid Salim is himself an ex-Saddam-era radio broadcaster. How has life changed? Well, he says with a smile, for one thing you couldn't mention, let alone play the music of, Iraq's most popular singer, Kazem al-Saher, after he failed to turn up to a birtday party of Uday Hussein. More seriously, he says: "You couldn't mention the word Kuwait. Or Iran. He adds: "Now I have the freedom of giving my opinion as a presenter and to encourage the listeners to give theirs."

Comments