Even old news is gold to Baghdad residents

Newspaper: The Way of the People, banned since 1979, is back, answering an informational need in the Iraqi capital.

Postwar Iraq

April 22, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The way people were grabbing at the man walking along Paradise Square here, he may as well have been giving away bottled water or satellite telephones or chunks of gold, people were so aggressive. But he was not. He was giving away information.

Newspapers have hit the streets here for the first time since the government stopped publishing April 8. Never mind that "yesterday's" editions were nearly a week old. Or that they did not really contain any news that people here did not know.

In a city craving information, the newspapers were devoured as if they contained the secret formula for surviving the aftermath of a war that has cut off electricity, deprived many people of clean water and indefinitely suspended government paychecks.

The paper, called Tarieq Al-Shaab, or The Way of the People, had no answers. But its mere existence in Baghdad - people have been executed for smuggling it from northern Iraq since it was banned in 1979 by Saddam Hussein - made its pages worth reading.

"Saddam is gone but the paper is back," said Faris Faris, whose Iraqi Communist Party published the newspaper in the north and trucked it down to Baghdad, distributing 30,000 copies yesterday and 30,000 on Sunday. "Slowly we will be back at full strength."

For decades, every legally published newspaper in Iraq devoted their front pages to a single subject - the glorification of Hussein. His photograph was deemed worthy of the front pages every day, as were accounts of his meetings, as were testimonials to his greatness.

The news, every day was that Hussein was the beloved leader of a truly fortunate people.

The Way of the People was a popular daily in the years before Hussein's rule. When the paper was banned, Communist Party members kept it running as a monthly, printing it in northern Iraq, in secret. In 1996, with northern Iraq under U.S. protection and more or less autonomous, the paper moved above ground and reporters began putting their names atop their stories.

But it was still banned in Baghdad.

Communicating

The Communist Party existed throughout the Hussein years, its members communicating with each other through a series of winks and nods and other subtle signals. Sometimes a pen did the trick, clipped between buttons of a shirt instead of a pocket. Sometimes a shirt sleeve was rolled up, just one. The signals told members: "I am one of you."

During Hussein's rule, not only were all the country's news media state-controlled, so too were its printing presses. The government buildings where the newspapers were published have been reduced to charred rubble by looters, so no printing presses are available in the capital.

At the government's Al-Jancheer Press House, the skewed official version of Iraq's history lay strewn amid broken bricks and shattered glass - old newspapers with a a picture of President Ronald Reagan addressing Congress, pictures of brave "martyrs" who died when they defeated the Americans in the 1991 gulf war.

A change of tone

The newest headlines, in The Way of the People, carry a different tone.

"The dictator has fallen; our people look for democracy and unity," said the top headline in the edition being passed out yesterday. "Thousands dead in bombings," said another. And a third: "Humanitarian groups: Oil protected, not Iraqi people."

"We are the only people capable of publishing, so we will publish as often as we can," Faris said. "As much as water, people need news."

Yesterday's edition was different from those published in the Hussein years in that newspaper employees no longer had to sneak the paper to central Iraq, risking their lives to do so. Under the old government, they had packed editions onto mules and hid them in the linings of suitcases to get them to Baghdad, often paying off guards at checkpoints.

"Every edition we printed, every newspaper we moved, we knew we could be killed," said Noah Ibrahim, 45, a reporter and editor at The Way of the People for 13 years. "It was worth it because we wanted to tell the truth to the Iraqi people."

He and other newspaper employees are seeking former reporters and editors who lost their jobs when Hussein took power and were too afraid to join in the underground editions. Two of Ibrahim's brothers were imprisoned and tortured, he said - one for eight months, one for 15 - because Iraq's secret police suspected Ibrahim's ties to the newspaper but could not locate him for punishment. "They took a promise from them to bring me in," Ibrahim said.

He went six years without contacting his family so that he would not get caught and they would not be punished further.

The newspaper's presses, the ones that printed the paper in Baghdad when that was allowed, are more than 25 years old, but Ibrahim said they have been located, outside the looted government buildings, and appeared to be in working order. He said a daily edition may be on the streets in a month or so.

With people so anxious for news, he is hopeful people will be willing to pay for the paper - yesterday's editions were handed out free - and that it can become a viable daily again.

"We will try to develop our reporters to use the Internet, and that will be difficult because the ones in Baghdad have never used it," he said. "But if they know truth and how to tell truth, they will be very good reporters."

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