"Spontaneous" demonstrations of support for President Saddam Hussein were staged throughout 2002. The Iraqi Journalists’ Union, headed by his son Uday, organised one on 26 March at which hundreds of journalists burned Israeli and American flags and called on an Arab League summit then meeting in Beirut to unanimously reject military action against Iraq and to support the Palestinians.
Celebrations to mark the president’s 65th birthday were held on 27 April in front of the former US embassy in Baghdad, which had been closed for 10 years. About 250 journalists from all over the country sang a song in praise of the president. "Journalists have come here to express their defiance of the US government’s plans to attack the country," said one of the occasion’s presenters.
A second referendum on the president’s rule was held on 15 October. He won the first, in 1995, with 99.96 per cent of the vote. The weekly Al-Zawra, published by the Iraqi Journalists’ Union, suggested calling 15 October the "Proclamation of Love Day." The official slogan - "Naam, naam, Saddam" ("yes, yes, Saddam") - is echoed by each media outlet and at every rally organised by the ruling Baath Party. The president has not appeared before the general public for several years but had no need to campaign since he controls all parts of the state apparatus. With an official score of 100 per cent of the vote and a 100 per cent voter turnout, he achieved what the regime’s number two man, Ezzat Ibrahim, called "a unique display of democracy, superior to all others, including that in countries besieging Iraq and trying to strangle it."
Both the Western and Arab media noted that very few voters used the polling booths and that some voted with their blood. The president’s son Uday had a child vote in his place. The British Daily Telegraph noted that while the late North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung claimed a 100 per cent vote in his favour in 1962, even he had not gone as far as claiming 100 per cent voter turnout. With these electoral skills in his belt, the re-elected president put on a show of mercy and freed prisoners, some of them political, and invited the opposition to return from exile abroad. Only a few responded, since most of them distrusted him for his increasing internal repression.
Hundreds of Iraqis fled the country during 2002 and in November more and more tried to reach Europe through neighbouring Jordan and Turkey. They said discontent with the regime was rising as US threats grew. The government stepped up its repression and intimidation to nip in the bud any attempt at rebellion.
The inhabitants of the Al-Jadida district of Baghdad risked their lives by scribbling "Down with Saddam" on walls. A refugee in Jordan (who refused to give his name for fear of reprisals against his family still in Iraq) said the mukhabarat secret police came at night and searched all the houses. "Anyone found with marker pens was seized and dozens of people just disappeared."
A former civil servant said all government workers were "forced to swear allegiance and to promise not to leave their offices under any circumstances when any bombing started." He said that in regions with a Shiite majority population, especially the south, where a revolt was brutally repressed in 1991, officials were "drawing up lists of all potential troublemakers and warning prominent local people that they and their families would be executed if any of their relatives tried to rise up against the regime."
The Kurdish population in the north was being courted both by the United States and President Hussein. In the hope of getting their support during a US attack on the country, the government began broadcasting in Kurdish from the northern town of Kirkuk.
On 13 November, Iraq announced through its UN ambassador, Mohammed Al-Duri, that it would accept unconditionally the UN Security Council resolution calling for the country’s disarmament and the return of inspectors. The chief inspector, Hans Blix, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed El-Baradei, arrived in Iraq on 18 November to revive the disarmament process after a gap of four years. The regime invited foreign journalists to come to Iraq to report freely on the UN inspectors’ work. But in fact, they were accompanied by official minders who greatly obstructed such reporting.
Uday Hussein was "unanimously" elected in April 1992 as head of the Iraqi Journalists’ Union and over the next 10 years became a media baron. He presided over a dozen weeklies and ran Babel, the country’s most influential daily, the youth-audience station Shabbab TV and the FM radio station Sawt al-Shabbab.
Iraqi journalists were obliged to join the Baath Party and obey official orders. About 300 journalists, including the country’s best writers, have led abroad over the past decade to escape Uday Hussein’s silencing of all dissent and reducing the media to echoing his father’s propaganda, using legal harassment, humiliation, blackmail, arrests and executions. Some people reportedly had their tongues cut out for criticising the president and journalists were said to have been dealt with in a special torture chamber at the offices of the national Olympic committee, which is headed by Uday. To show that no media was immune to his anger, the president shut down Uday’s paper Babel for a month, from November to December.
Broadcasting in Iraq comprised four state-controlled TV stations - the official Iraq Television, Shabbab TV (which sometimes retransmitted programmes of the pan-Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera), a station showing films and soap-operas and a satellite station set up in 1998. In May, Liberty TV run by the Iraqi National Congress, which grouped the main exiled opposition parties, stopped broadcasting because money from the US Congress had ceased in February. It had been set up in September 2001 with US help and broadcast from Western countries to Iraq, the Middle East, Europe and some African and Asian countries.
More and more Iraqis listened to the US government station Sawa, a local version of the Voice of America launched during the year. The station had an accredited correspondent in Baghdad and its declared aim was to provide reasoned, impartial and comprehensive news coverage which it also broadcast to Kuwait, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Most people listened to the station for its music, but Iraqis tuned in to it and stations such as Radio Monte Carlo-Middle East and the BBC to hear the news they could not get elsewhere.
The media was prolific in the autonomous Kurdish region of the country which had countless newspapers and magazines, two satellite TV stations, a score of local stations and a dozen radio stations. They had much greater freedom than in the rest of Iraq but were partisan media funded by political groups.
Access to Internet websites such as Hotmail was forbidden in Baghdad and trying to get e-mail was difficult. Internet access was only introduced in 2000 and was only available through a government-controlled ISP at about 30 Internet centres around the country. High cost and red tape rule out access in private homes. In November, the president reiterated that private individuals could not have satellite receiver dishes. In a speech read on his behalf on TV, he gave religious reasons and said that "putting out the opinions of others who are enemies is sabotage." Only foreign media, embassies and top regime officials were allowed to have them.
Pressure and obstruction
Faisal al-Qacem, a presenter with the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, received death threats in late January 2002 for inviting onto his popular programme "Opposite Direction" a well-known opposition figure and journalist, Faiq Sheikh Ali, who denounced human rights violations and crimes committed by the Iraqi government. Ali’s brothers, sister and other relatives in Iraq were immediately arrested and shown, looking terrified, on Iraqi Satellite TV and Shabbab TV.
Safia Taleb al-Suhail, editor of the paper Al-Manar Al-Arabi and head of the Arab and Islamic section of the humans rights group International Alliance for Justice, received several death threats, as did family members in Amman and Beirut. Suhail, the daughter of Sheikh Taleb al-Suhail, head of the Bani Tamim tribe who was murdered by Iraqi government agents in Beirut in 1994, said the threats came from regime agents. In April, she wrote several articles in the London-based paper Azzaman about the abuses committed by the Iraqi regime. She had organised a conference in Jordan on 9 March about human rights in Iraq, at which calls were made for legal action against Iraqi Vice-President Ibrahim al-Duri.
In March, Uday Hussein expelled about 30 journalists from the Iraqi Journalists’ Union, saying they were no longer journalists.
On 2 July, foreign minister Naji Sabri denounced broadcasts beamed at Iraq by the Prague-based Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty as unfriendly actions and accused the Czech government of allowing the CIA to put out anti-Iraq propaganda.
Diar al-Umari, the Baghdad correspondent of Al-Jazeera, was banned from working for 10 days on 20 July, but the ban was lifted without explanation four days later. The station’s editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Hilal, said the information ministry had accused it of "harming Iraq" by calling the Baath Party "the party in power" instead of using the official term of "Arab socialist party." The station also refused to use the president’s official title that local media are forced to use. Al-Jazeera announced the reopening of its office but mentioned no change of editorial line.
French journalists Erick Bonnier and Céline Hue, who were in Iraq from 9 to 26 November for the TV news agency Toni Comiti Productions, were systematically prevented from filming things they had full permission to film. Their official guide organised absurd bogus scenes and Baghdad police banned them from filming official buildings and even sheep, saying such shots would not be good for the regime’s image.
Babel, the country’s most influential daily paper, owned by the president’s son Uday, was banned from 20 November to 20 December - probably to make an example of it - for "contravening the instructions" of the information ministry. The paper had published views of regime opponents so as to mock them and had criticised several Arab heads of state.