Middle East

Baghdad Cashes In

Media Mean Business

An Iraqi technician walks on the roof of Baghdad's Ministry of Information, March 11. Before the building was bombed on March 29, it was a center for media from around the world. (Photo: AFP)

The Bedouins are back. Where, once upon a time in 762, Caliph al-Mansur pitched his tents and founded Baghdad, later to become the capital of the Islamic world empire, there are once again tents. And again, they are just a few meters away from the Tigris. The only difference is that they are not on the fertile soil of Mesopotamia itself, but instead pitched on the terrace of the Ministry of Information.

Reporters from all over the world have gathered here. Those who intend to broadcast the campaign, which the United States calls a preventive war, to the world with their electronic cameras, want to protect their delicate equipment against the winter rains, against the coming spring storms, and soon against the blazing sun as well under big tents. In the midst of this media campground, an Iraqi tent maker has set up shop. And he is doing the business of his life.

To control the huge influx of reporters, camera crews, producers, and sound men, along with their electronic equipment such as editing machines, tape recorders, TV cameras, satellite phones, and dishes, the Ministry of Information has quickly thrown up two smaller buildings. The ground floor has been turned into a huge construction site, where more office space for the news agencies that already have permanent or temporary bureaus in Baghdad is being built.

Most of the television reporters position themselves in front of one of the few mosques in the area. It has an egg-shaped dome, and one often hears the rumor that the mosque’s construction was financed by CNN to provide an Oriental ambience to its viewers. Most recently, such old soldiers as Peter Scholl-Latour have dared to come to this front line. If, someday, Christiane Amanpour of CNN or John Simpson of the BBC—who reports that he is banned from entering Iraq—should show up in Baghdad, it would be the most reliable indication that war has indeed broken out.

Every journalist has to work under the strict supervision of an assigned minder from the Ministry of Information. The authorities want to channel all the reporting of the news that is broadcast to the world. And their business has been booming for months. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars have been flooding into their pockets. Print journalists have to pay US$125 a day to the ministry—for the honor and pleasure of having a minder present to listen in to their interviews. TV crews pay a multiple of this fee. If they have leased office space in the ministry, they must also count on paying monthly rent—between $500 and $1,500.

Naturally, the minders (Iraqis use the same word in English when referring to them) expect to be paid by the foreigners they are ordered to protect. This cost ranges from $25 to $50 a day—a nice little extra income for someone whose official monthly salary does not exceed $20. Reporters who bring their satellite phones along must have them sealed at the airport or when crossing the border—and then pay a hefty bribe to the customs agents. They must get the phones unsealed later at the press center, and are ordered to pay an additional $100 a day to use them to compensate the Iraqi government for all telephone charges. That many officials at the ministry get involved in additional bribes is understandable, given the meager wages they are paid.

Television crews, especially, are closely watched by their minders. Anything that Iraqis say to foreign TV is strictly controlled, so that no critical voice is heard overseas. TV audiences must therefore often enough be satisfied with mere background pieces.

Iraqi newspaper readers appear on the screen, the coffee-shop owner or the woman dressed in black, selling her goods at the market. All are saying that they will fight fearlessly against the invaders and that they stand firmly behind their leader Saddam Hussein. This is the sort of information that Baghdad’s citizens are to provide while being monitored.

Television reporters, however, hear entirely different stories in private conversations with Iraqi citizens, which they are not permitted to tell the outside world because their medium constricts them to provide visuals with each assignment they file. The minders are ordered to prevent journalists from gathering those visuals.

Among the background pieces used by print journalists is the obligatory visit to the Friday book market on Mutanabbi Street. A 500-600 meter-long stretch is devoted to a variety of publications, ranging from copies of National Geographic and Cosmopolitan to Saddam Hussein’s speeches on history and classics of English literature. The scene provides attractive visuals. And it gives the impression that at least a little freedom is permitted in Baghdad.

At the end of Mutanabbi Street stands Cafe Shabender. On Fridays, what is left of Baghdad’s intellectual elite gathers here. The ministry loves to send journalists to the cafe because, sometimes, spontaneous demonstrations against the war or against the United States take place that make good visuals. But those who meet here—and among them are often enough truly independent-minded thinkers—are tired of the foreign media. They are especially fed up with foreign photographers in search of portrait photos, who poke their lenses in their faces as if Iraqis were a rare species. “We are not in a zoo here,” erupted one Iraqi.

But there is a place where foreign TV crews are rarely allowed to enter: Saddam City, the gray slum inhabited mostly by Shiites. Between 1 million and 2 million Iraqis vegetate here in what is one enormous powder keg. TV correspondents are not permitted to film here; the wretched social conditions are not part of the picture that the Ministry of Information wants to give the world.

Despite the limited job opportunities, the influx of journalists into Baghdad continues. At the Ministry of Information, the visa applications pile up. In Amman, the way station for reporters bound for Baghdad, many wait weeks for their papers to come through. It has happened that for a couple of hundred dollars, a visa in the name of A suddenly ends up in B’s passport.

To hold back the assault, Baghdad will extend 10-day visas only for an additional 10 days—and more recently only for five extra days. The ministry has run out of minders. According to the authorities, fairness dictates that those waiting in Amman be allowed in. Only the major television networks, which lease bureaus in Baghdad, are allowed to stay longer.

Every foreign journalist stationed in Iraq’s capital has to be aware of the fact that the ministry intends to use him or her for its propaganda purposes. Perhaps many reporters are flocking to Baghdad to earn their credentials as war correspondents. Most representatives of the foreign media—with or without minders—come into contact with the average Iraqi and learn to value the people of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. These journalists come to understand Iraq’s existential anxiety about an uncertain future. But in all the foreign reports being produced in the tents on the Ministry of Information’s terrace, with or without the mosque as a backdrop, the average Iraqi is rarely given a voice.