In a nondescript building in the Al-Adamiyah District of Baghdad, lie the vast presses of the Al-Hurriyah Printing House. It was here that numerous newspapers were printed, including two English dailies, Babylon and the Baghdad Observer, during the regime of Saddam Husayn. In recent weeks the presses have not been used and they now lie covered with discarded newspapers.
Today, the presses will roll again - but this time their output will be different. Yasin Faruq of the Coalition of Iraqi Unity said in Baghdad that about 6,000 copies of the group's new newspaper would be printed. The project was so new that a name for the paper had not yet been finalised, he said. But what was known, he added, was that it would be able to express opinions and ideas that would have been unthinkable under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
"We want it to capture the complete picture of true democracy of the Iraqi people and what they are thinking today. It will express the release of the Iraqi people," Yasin said.
Inside the complex, old copies of papers lauding Saddam lie in piles mixed with photos of the president, most of them ripped in half or defaced. “This equipment belongs to the Iraqi people, not Saddam Hussein and his family," he stressed.
He added that the name of the printing house, which translates as "Freedom", would not be changed. "It will just be under different control by people with a different idea of freedom."
The newspaper is just one of many that have quickly emerged following the fall of Saddam. Throughout Baghdad, men stand on street corners selling papers generally produced by political parties.
Abd al-Hadi, editor of Al-Ittihad (Unity), published by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said they were printing 35,000 copies of the paper three times a week. "Under the old regime, it was a dictatorship, there was no freedom, and the views of the people were suppressed. Papers were only [published] by the government for the government," he said.
While the PUK and other groups had been able to print newspapers in the north of the county since 1991, anyone caught with one of these in the government controlled southern or central regions of Iraq risked imprisonment or death, Abd al-Hadi said.
Al-Ittihad was the first newspaper to be printed in Baghdad after the collapse of the regime, its first edition appearing on 20 April. The paper sold for about seven US cents, because the editors wanted as many people as possible to read it.
For the Kurds, finding a voice in Baghdad was a remarkable event, Abd al-Hadi said. "People who have experienced all these things - how can we express the happiness inside? It's like an explosion. We can't express our feelings now. It is not just Kurdish people who think this, but all Iraqis."
He emphasised that the paper was determined to reflect all views, and welcomed criticism of its own party. He pointed to an article in the latest edition in which a religious leader criticised the PUK leader, Jalal Talebani, for welcoming American troops. "It's the real democracy that we want the Iraqi people to be used to," Abd al-Hadi said.
At present, the paper has eight pages, but he hoped to expand this to 20 soon, to include topics such as foreign news, culture and sport.
Those involved with producing "The Call of the Future" paper in Baghdad share his enthusiasm. Dhirgam Kadhim, from the Iraqi National Accord, explained that the paper had previously been published in the UK, Jordan and northern Iraq, and smuggled to other regions. As well as producing 20,000 copies of this paper for the capital city now, it was about to launch a new newspaper - Baghdad. Dhirgam said the paper had previously aimed to expose the Saddam regime and alleviate the fears of the Iraqis.
But the emergence of this new sense of freedom is not limited to print. With a large dish strapped to the roof of his ageing red Datsun, Amir al-Kayyar explained that he had just paid US $320 to buy a system that would let him access 400 TV channels. "I want to see civilisation in the world and how the world goes on."
|Satellite dishes are sprouting throughout the capital|
For the last 20 years it has been difficult for Iraqis to travel outside the country or to see on TV what was happening outside its borders, he said. What he was looking forward to most now was watching news from other countries. "We want to be part of the world and not stay isolated on our own," he said.
With brothers in France, Belgium and America, Amir said he now felt he could be seeing what they were seeing. "It is a part of freedom. But freedom is a big thing - not just a satellite dish," he added.
Muhammad al-Samarra'i, the owner of the al-Rabi'ah Supermarket, which now deals exclusively in satellite equipment, said he had already sold 50 systems in just his first week of business. Many more people were asking about satellite TVs, but the prices were still quite high for most, although he predicted they would drop soon as more equipment came into Iraq from neighbouring countries.
He had more than 100 systems in stock, bought from Kurdish-controlled areas in the north, where satellite TVs have been legal for the last 12 years. Muhammad said he had secretly owned a satellite system for the last four years, concealing it on his roof under camouflage, but his family lived in fear of its being discovered.
For Sabah Yaghazul, the collapse of the regime and its censorship is a huge relief. In the 1990s, he had a secret business selling satellite TV systems, but in 1999 someone discovered a dish in his back garden and alerted police. Initially he was just fined US $150 and had his equipment confiscated, but was later taken to prison, where he was confined for six months. Sabah described that period as a nightmare; moreover, he had been forced to give up his satellite business and open up a food store instead.
But with the fall of Saddam's regime, he immediately went back to what he used to do. He opened his satellite store a week ago and has already sold 10 systems. He buys them from northern Iraq for $170 and sells them for between $250 and $350.
Sabah compared his experience to what happened in Afghanistan, where satellite dishes had been banned under the Taliban. Many then bought equipment as soon as the regime changed, as is the case in Iraq today. However in January this year, religious leaders in Afghanistan reimposed the ban on satellite equipment. Sabah noted that the current proliferation of satellite systems in Iraq could have a similar effect on the country's religious leaders. "If they are in power, I think they will try to stop them - 100 percent sure - the same as in Iran."
With little Internet access yet, satellite TVs were a way of keeping up with what was happening elsewhere, Sabah said. "For the last 20 years we have felt cut off from the rest of the world, and haven't been able to get information. But now, this is a good start."
Meanwhile, Dhirgam said his group aimed to produce a weekly current affairs magazine and was looking at broadcasting projects, including TV. Although he had been in exile for the last 25 years, he said having the freedom to publish openly was a tremendous advance for Iraqis.
"My family and friends are just hungry for information and anxious for expression, but doing it cautiously, because they don't believe they are free yet and keep looking over their shoulders," he said. "Freedom is a dangerous thing - like medicine - you have to give it bit by bit to let them get used to it."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions