’We’re here to help’

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Rest area for journalists with satellite television in Press Centre. The officials' office is back right; all around the rest area are cubicles for AFP, AP, Reuters and other agencies.

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The Information Ministry's Press Centre (al-Markaz al-Sahhafy) charges visiting journalists $100 a day for an ill-defined mixture of help and supervision and an extra $25 a day if you have a satellite phone. News organisations with permanent local staff pay $500 a month and upwards for space in its warren of tattered offices on the ground floor of the Information Ministry building - you'll find the French News Agency AFP, for example, in a cramped cubicle with fibreboard walls, and CNN in a spacious office with air conditioning and a sofa.

A shifting team of Press Centre officials sit in a glass-walled office organising a 'programme' for each journalist. You're supposed to register when you arrive and hand in a written list of what you want to do and who you want to see. It's vetted by senior people in the Information Ministry and the Press Centre then tries to fix the items that have been approved. They allocate a 'guide' (= minder) to you  and escorts you and translates if you don't speak Arabic. Tours of sanctions-hit hospitals and schools, the Museum of Challenge (showing how Baghdad was rebuilt after the Gulf War) and al-Aamiriya bunker (where an American bomb killed several hundred people) are available at the drop of a hat.

The senior Press Centre people are charming. I'll let you know whether any of my programme actually comes off when the four days of Eid al-Adha - the biggest festival in the Muslim calendar - are over. I asked to see the Oil and Health ministers and President Saddam Hussein's special adviser on weapons programmes, al-Aamer al-Saadi, and to travel to Mosul to see what it's like and to Kirkuk to photograph oil installations. The Information Ministry agreed to fix Oil and Health and Mosul but not the special adviser. Kirkuk depends on the Oil ministry.

It's no more restrictive a system than in some Arab countries such as Syria, where there are no programes or minders but hardly anyone in the government will ever talk to you. And it's not hard to escape the Press Centre net if you want to - you're free to go to shops and restaurants where you can find people to talk to. They know that the intelligence services will be watching you, and that almost nobody is going to risk prison and possible torture by telling you anything too subversive.

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 UN HQ
 Arabic
 Iraqi drivers
 Press Centre
 Rasheed Hotel