Basra's 'Sidewalk' Paper a Forum for the People

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In Iraq, voicing thoughts about politics is dangerous. But a popular newspaper found on the sidewalks of Basra is flourishing. In its pages, anyone can give an opinion, protected by anonymity.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, has what's being called the best newspaper in town. A new edition goes out every day, although it's neither printed nor distributed. Its named The Sidewalk Newspaper and its articles are written by ordinary citizens who simply want their voices to be heard. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro filed this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

It's about 120 degrees in Basra, and the stench from the putrid garbage in the streets makes one not want to linger anywhere. So it's a testament to the popularity of The Sidewalk Newspaper that people stop to read its articles.

(Soundbite of traffic; tapping noise)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Riad Mesti(ph) tapes up an advertisement he's written touting his services as a tour guide. Written on pink paper, the ad sits next to large white placards where the day's articles are written in pen and hung on a wall outside the municipal theater.

Mr. RIAD MESTI: (Through Translator) The Sidewalk Newspaper expresses the suffering of the people that cannot be published in the newspapers, but this is for our public interest and our rights. This is a free forum where we can make demands.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they do. Most of what is written is satire, but other pieces have complaints that are specific and targeted. This is what some of them say.

Unidentified Man #1: `Good news for the people. There are new items on your ration card: 100 kilos of sought-on pain for every family.'

Unidentified Man #2: `We are the sons of this country. No electricity. No oil. No safety. No homeland.'

Unidentified Woman: `This newspaper is outside bomb-targeting terrorism and corruption. It fights the corrupt media and the parties that lead the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hussein Abdul Razak al Ayash is the 46-year-old editor in chief of The Sidewalk Newspaper. He puts out the new edition every morning and he stands literally behind every word.

Mr. HUSSEIN ABDUL RAZAK AL AYASH (Editor in Chief, The Sidewalk Newspaper): (Through Translator) I have been standing at this wall from 7:00 in the morning to 1 PM daily for two and a half years. I have used up more than two million pieces of thick paper so far and consumed more than 10,000 pens. We are seeking a free press which is not influenced by the political parties. We write what is dictated to us by our conscience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He came up with the idea six days after the fall of Baghdad when there was no other media outlet. The first edition started in the capital, but he moved it down to Basra where it has flourished.

Mr. AYASH: (Through Translator) Our editors are actually the Iraqi people, and even the grocer, the porter and the man who drives a car can write in my newspaper. Even a child can give his opinion, but in Iraq, we still lack enough courage to write and express ourselves. We are afraid.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And with good reason, say some of the people who stop to read what's written. Forty-five-year-old Kasam Bader(ph) is an electrical engineer.

Mr. KASAM BADER (Electrical Engineer): (Through Translator) This is a free podium, but the articles are written anonymously. There is fear here, and I don't think one can now openly state these things. If they knew who wrote some of this, the person might get killed after two days.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another man, 52-year-old Morta Fatah(ph), agrees. He says that assassinations and killings are rife in Basra and those that post their opinions are right not to identify themselves.

Mr. MORTA FATAH: (Through Translator) There are parties whose names you do not dare to mention, and if you do, they will target you immediately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which is possibly one of the reasons The Sidewalk Newspaper is such a success. The people who stop here recognize its authenticity and honesty. As one man said, `This is the real voice of the Iraqi street.'

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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