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One Small Step for Iraq, One Giant Leap for Iraq's Free Press

Monday , August 15, 2005

By Jared Young

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When Coalition troops stormed Baghdad in April 2003, they ushered in many new freedoms for Iraqis, among them freedom of the press.

After more than 25 years, Saddam Hussein’s tight grip on all information and his state-run propaganda media machine had ended.

Since then, Iraq’s new free press has advanced, despite the growing pains that have accompanied the industry in a country that previously had been denied cell phones, Internet access and satellite television.

That free press is now poised to take a giant leap forward, as the Iraqis Tuesday assume control of theInternational Press Center (search) (IPC) in Baghdad. The question foremost in the minds of many who care about democracy there is: Can a free press there survive?

The IPC, opened last year by Ambassador Paul Bremer, then head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (search), gave Iraq’s media a major boost. The state-of-the-art facility was unlike anything else available to the media in the entire region. But it became just another good news story that received little attention from Western media outlets.

At the IPC, Iraqi journalists were trained in common media practices, taught how to set up and use e-mail accounts and instructed in using the Internet to conduct research. With access to newsmakers, high-speed Internet and satellite news channels, the IPC quickly became the everyday workplace of many Iraqi journalists, as well as journalists from around the world.

Regular background briefings were conducted with top Coalition and Iraqi officials in both English and Arabic on a variety of reconstruction and governance issues. Just steps away from the seat of Iraq’s interim government and the media’s main briefing room, the IPC hosted U.S. cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, visiting officials from coalition countries, military officials and traveling press.

During the announcement of Iraq’s interim constitution, the facility was buzzing. It again played a key role during the transfer of sovereignty in June 2004.

In the year since the Coalition Provision Authority ceased existence, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has run the IPC. Now the Iraqis are taking charge. It’s critical they keep it working at full efficiency, since a free press will be a major contributor to democracy in Iraq.

Luckily, the Americans are leaving major upgrades to the facility, upgrades that will provide journalists with the tools they need in the months and years ahead. Already the most advanced in the region, the IPC has recently received new equipment that will keep the facility on the cutting edge. In addition to new desks and chairs, 20 new desktop computers are on hand. These new computers provide more than 30 workstations for journalists in Iraq.

Additional new equipment includes 30 English-learning programs with headsets, an LCD projector, a scanner, a color copier, dozens of memory sticks, hundreds of blank CDs and floppy discs, CD writers and dozens of computer programs. This new equipment joins the satellite dishes, TVs, laser printers, copier, computers, refrigerators and other high-tech gadgets already being used by journalists.

An additional 30 laptop computers will be given to some of the pioneering Iraqi journalists who have been using the facility since the day it opened. These new laptops will bring the journalists up to speed with their counterparts in the Western world and give them the mobility to cover stories wherever the news takes them.

Growing pains will continue for the Iraqi free press as the new nation moves forward with democracy.

But as Iraqis take control of the IPC, individual journalists will have the tools necessary to make a gigantic leap of progress. The success of these journalists and the hundreds of new media outlets they represent is important for the survival of Iraq’s democracy. It is vital for the Iraqis to continue operating the IPC in a manner that contributes to the continued growth and survival of their free press.

Jared Young, the first director of the IPC, is a communications associate at The Heritage Foundation.