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Staffers quit at U.S.-backed Iraq paper

Many of the editors and reporters at al-Sabah newspaper, a U.S.-funded publication, walked out this week and said Tuesday that they would launch their own paper.
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Many of the editors and reporters at al-Sabah newspaper, a U.S.-funded publication that occupation officials have called a model for journalism in the Middle East, walked out this week and said Tuesday that they would launch their own paper. American overseers had threatened their future editorial independence, they alleged.

"We thought that the Americans were here to create a free media," Ismael Zayer, who had been editor-in-chief, said in an interview. "Instead, we were being suffocated."

Zayer said he could not accept the plan by the American administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, to keep the Arabic-language paper within the Iraqi Media Network, a body that occupation officials created to develop a public broadcasting service. Zayer contended that the newspaper would be subject to interference by a future Iraqi government.

David Sedgley, program director for the Iraqi Media Network, dismissed Zayer's opinions as the "complaints of a disgruntled employee." He said the future network board of governors would provide only a guiding hand to the newspaper, television and radio operations.

Latest setback
The Coalition Provisional Authority that has ruled Iraq for the past year says the media network is being modeled on the British Broadcasting Corp. Simon Haselock, head of media development and regulation for the authority, said in an interview Tuesday that he had designed a corporate structure for the organization at the authority's behest.

The exodus from al-Sabah is the latest setback in U.S. efforts to shepherd Iraq into a new media era. The undertaking has faced allegations of wasted funding and uninspired programming. Many Iraqis view the media outlets created by the program as mouthpieces of the occupation, not independent voices.

The resignations come as many Iraqis want to break free of U.S. control in advance of the scheduled June 30 transfer of sovereignty to a new government. Iraqi political and religious leaders have chafed at U.S. plans to select an interim government to lead the country to elections. The proposals are being reworked by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

The journalists said Tuesday that leaving a publication controlled by the occupation authority would enhance their credibility. "We want our sovereignty now," said Shaker Anbari, the former culture section editor.

The planned new newspaper is to begin publication later this week under the name al-Sabah Jdeed. Sabah means morning and jdeed means new.

Staff members said they were putting up initial funds themselves and would seek to keep it going with commercial revenue and possibly contributions.

The publication they left is one of the largest-circulation dailies among the scores of papers that have opened in Iraq since the fall of former president Saddam Hussein a year ago.

Dangerous occupation
Zayer was one of several exiled journalists hired to run the publication. He fled Iraq in 1980 for Germany after repeated jailings for opposition political activities and worked for many years as a correspondent for the London-based al-Hayat newspaper.

He said censorship at al-Sabah was rare, although U.S. overseers recently tried to block publication of an advertisement from a new political group that complained of the "grief of occupation."

Zayer and other former staff members said that working for a newspaper under U.S. control had become a dangerous occupation. In March, three employees of the newspaper died in an ambush in northern Iraq; Zayer himself has been the target of two assassination attempts, including an attack on his offices with rocket-propelled grenade and rifle fire.

Al-Sabah Jdeed is operating from a house once used as a distribution office by al-Sabah. On Tuesday morning, a few dozen staffers crowded into the building to set up offices, plug in computers and prepare for this week's inaugural edition.

Development of the Iraqi Media Network is being overseen by the Florida-based Harris Corp., which last January won a $96 million contract to carry out the job. Sedgley is an executive at Harris.

The telecommunications equipment maker subcontracted the task of training and overseeing al-Sabah to a Kuwaiti publisher.

For the moment, a former Zayer deputy, Maher Faisal, is in charge of putting out the original al-Sabah. It was not clear how many of the original staff had fled. Faisal said that he and "five or six hard workers" put out Tuesday's edition and that he was working to recruit replacement staff. Faisal once worked for al-Jumhuriya, one of Hussein's official newspapers.

"We don't need the independence Zayer talks about," he said. "We only have to publish credible information. These exiles have nothing to teach Iraqis. We can work without them."