The pressures of an editorial conference can be so daunting that many a beleaguered journalist has felt as if they were appearing before a court with powers to sentence to death. But for Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of Iraqi state television and editor-in-chief of Baghdad's leading newspaper, the threat was all too real as he tried to find news that would please Saddam Hussein and his son Uday.
As editor-in-chief of Baghdad's leading daily newspaper, al-Jammhoria, in 1990-92, al-Bazzaz was obliged to deal regularly with Uday, Saddam's despotic elder son, who owned much of Iraq's media. Until Saddam's overthrow, Uday's personal media empire included two daily newspapers, seven weeklies, two monthly magazines, a TV channel and a radio station. His advertising monopoly funded his now infamous playboy lifestyle - private zoo and all.
One particular memory of Uday, the press baron with a gold-plated Kalashnikov, makes al-Bazzaz wince. "At an editorial meeting, he was angry about an article in my newspaper and he took out his handgun," he recalls with a shudder. "You can imagine our reaction when he started toying with it while shouting at us. After that, any kind of dialogue with him was impossible." He shakes his head wearily.
Three years earlier, al-Bazzaz came close to being executed by Saddam's henchmen. As head of the state broadcasting ministry, he was summoned to one of the dictator's many opulent villas on the outskirts of Baghdad. Although he had met Saddam frequently over the previous decade, it quickly became clear that this audience was different. Saddam, in full military uniform, bristled behind a large desk. al-Bazzaz began to panic. It was far from unusual for senior civil servants to "disappear" suddenly after being deemed an irritant. For a while, al-Bazzaz had been leading a softly-softly campaign to persuade Saddam to introduce a degree of freedom for the press. Had he overstepped the mark?
Chillingly, the President enquired after his health. There was a golden rule when in Saddam's presence. Only speak when addressed directly. al-Bazzaz replied that he was well. It soon became clear what he'd done to offend the dictator. Iraqi state television and radio broadcasted hours of saccharine poems and songs in Saddam's honour every day. Much of the output was dismal, and in recent weeks al-Bazzaz had instructed producers to dump the worst of it. Saddam wanted to know why. "Who made you judge?" he hissed. "Who are you to stop people expressing their feelings for me?"
It was at that moment that al-Bazzaz feared he was about to be executed. But after a pause, the President raised the issue of press freedom and informed his quaking minister that there would be no relaxation of controls. The following day, the Iraqi people were once again treated to a full transmission schedule of poems and songs in praise of their President.
Fast forward 14 years to March this year - just before the war - and al-Bazzaz is sitting behind a desk in the cramped Ealing offices of his Arabic-language newspaper, Azzaman Daily. The walls are lined with pictures of him with every major Arab leader over the past 20 years, including President Assad of Syria, the late King Hussein of Jordan and Yasser Arafat.
Not long after the incident with Uday and his gun, al-Bazzaz defected from Iraq along with 150 journalists. He lived in Jordan and the USA, before moving to London, where he set up a publishing business catering for the many thousands of exiled Iraqis around the world.
Born in Mosul in 1952, al-Bazzaz was a published author and journalist in his mid-twenties when he first met Saddam, who was then vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council of the Ba'ath party. Intriguingly, the up-and-coming politician wanted to discuss literature. He said that he had read all of Ernest Hemingway's novels while in prison, and especially enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea. al-Bazzaz remembers being impressed.
In the intervening decades, he observed the dictator at close quarters. "By the end, I think Saddam genuinely believed he was a demigod, and that 25 million Iraqis were lower forms of human being," he says. "He came from an isolated village [al-Awja, just east of Tikrit] where people had nothing and felt they were second-class citizens. When he and his cousins arrived in the city, they used violence to get what they wanted. We have a saying - like elephants in a museum of glass. They destroy everything without opening their eyes.
He continues: "Later, Saddam believed he enjoyed divine protection and that God had saved him many times over his life. That's why he felt he had been chosen to be more than just president of Iraq, to rule beyond Iraq's borders and face the imperialism of the West."
How difficult was life for journalists under Saddam? "It's fair to say journalists were not loved and things were always hard, but the situation became far worse when Uday took over much of the media. This guy had nothing to do with journalism but he saw it as a powerful way of trying to control the minds of the Iraqi people. He knew very well that most journalists were not supportive of his father. By day they did their jobs quietly... By night many worked against the regime."
The few who did criticise the regime in any way, however trifling, were silenced. Another journalist employed at al-Bazzaz's London office described how colleagues had gone missing. Some were beaten and threatened with execution. Others were killed or fled the country, leaving their families vulnerable to Uday's bloody payback.
When a new law was drafted in 1991 to ease restrictions on the press, al-Bazzaz asked Saddam whether he seriously intended to enact it. "Saddam got angry and said, 'How can you ask me such questions? Do you think I'm serious about such a law? Do you think Iraqi journalists like you deserve freedom to say whatever you want to say? No way! This draft law is a temporary measure to enable us to see who is hiding himself and keeping his ideas in the darkness.' " Here, al-Bazzaz pauses, before concluding: "And at that moment I knew the president of Iraq was trying to ambush his critics and flush out dissent in the press."
Three months after our meeting, with Saddam toppled and American tanks in Baghdad, al-Bazzaz answers his mobile phone while driving through the Iraqi capital. On a crackly line that keeps cutting out, he explains how he moved his publishing business to Iraq, producing editions of Azzaman Daily in Baghdad and Basra. He says a reawakened appetite for news in a media-starved middle class has led circulation to soar to a total of 60,000 copies a day.
A shoestring staff, including women, is producing up to 20 pages of news, with other projects including magazines and a TV channel in the pipeline. "We can't train staff fast enough," he says happily, adding that he is recruiting journalists and technical staff locally. "People are desperate here for a neutral free press after 30 years of a totalitarian state." When I ask about Saddam's whereabouts or indeed whether he's still alive, his mobile cuts out again. Perhaps that's one scoop that Saad al-Bazzaz isn't willing to share.Reuse content