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The Campaign To Monopolize Iraq's Media

by Jeff Elliott

Iraqi editors publish bad news at their own peril

 + U.S. Wants Media Monopoly In Iraq

 + U.S. Gives Iraq Media Control To Mysterious Pentagon Contractor

 + Iraqis Prefer Satellite Channels To Fledgling State TV

 + U.S. Tries To Censor Major Satellite Broadcasters In Iraq

 + Rumsfeld Says Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Working With "Insurgents"

 + Pentagon's Plan To Bypass U.S. TV Networks

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was just about to start speaking at the National Press Club Luncheon in September when a chant began at the back of the room: "Hey, Rumsfeld, what do you say? -- How many troops did you kill today? Hey, Rumsfeld, what do you say? -- How many troops did you kill today?" Rumsfeld waited patiently as the hecklers were hustled out. "Well, now..." he began, to scattered laughter. "I just came in from Baghdad," he continued, "and there are now over 100 newspapers in the free press in Iraq in a free Iraq, where people are able to say whatever they wish."

Variations on the "100 newspapers" fable is a favorite comeback that Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Cheney use when confronted by protesters, and is usually followed by the taunt that dissidents would have been killed for speaking out like that during Saddam's regime. (Ever fond of making a bad situation sound worse, Wolfowitz likes to add that their tounges would have been cut out.)

Al-Jazeera Saddam
Most Iraqis viewed Saddam's capture on satellite channels like Al-Jazeera, but it wasn't the version of the story that Bush wanted the Mideast to see
It may be a snappy zinger, but it's also not true. While the BBC estimated in October that there were over 210 newspapers and periodicals published in Iraq, only the newspaper publishers and broadcasters that support the U.S. occupation are welcome in new Iraq; the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) can use "incitement to violence" as an excuse to close any newspaper or magazine. Editors publish bad news at their own peril, and several have been closed or had staff members detained, according to UPI.

But print journalists may be the lucky ones. TV and radio broadcasters in Iraq face greater restrictions, by U.S. forces that are rapidly deploying a state-run broadcasting company that will all but monopolize news in Iraq.

on IMN

Al-Iraqiya reaches up to 85 percent of Iraqi viewers, but the audience prefers satellite stations
Within weeks of Saddam's fall, the U.S. launched the Iraq Media Network (IMN) to oversee media operations in the country. Last month, a man named Don North wrote in a letter to The Associated Press: "IMN has become an irrelevant mouthpiece for CPA propaganda, managed news and mediocre foreign programs." North is no armchair critic; until recently, he was the senior TV adviser to the IMN.

In his excellent article on IMN, Alex Gourevitch reports that the first sign of trouble was the Pentagon hiring a company with no experience in journalism to run IMN:

Early this year, the Pentagon hired not a media outlet but a San Diego-based defense contractor, the Scientific Applications International Corp. (SAIC), to develop a multimedia operation in postwar Iraq. Although this new outfit was intended to become a kind of public broadcasting system, The SAIC's orientation was more toward information control: One of SAIC's specializations, for example, is "Information Dominance/Command and Control." The IMN was created in April, and it wasn't long before journalists hired by the SAIC realized their double role: The occupying authority told them to stop conducting man-on-the-street interviews because some were too critical of the American presence, and to stop including readings of the Koran as part of cultural programming.

These are all Iraqi decisions," North later told the Washington Post. "This is the last thing I want to do, tell them whether they can have their Koran or not."

Part of the problem is that IMN -- which was first named "Middle East Television Network" and is now called "Al-Iraqiya" -- is that the Pentagon runs the show, not the State Dept. or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent federal agency which oversees all U.S. international, non-military broadcasting, including the Voice of America (VOA). The first goal after taking control of Saddam's TV studios was to get pro-American shows on the air. Iraqi viewers used to watching Egyptian soap operas and reruns of Saddam's greatest speeches were now presented with reruns of the sitcom Friends and translated speeches by administrator Paul Bremer.

As reported in our SAIC article, part of the disconnect was because the company hired people like the controversial Robert Reilly, an outspoken right-wing ideologue who began his public career in the 1980s as a propagandist in the White House for the Nicaraguan contras. "Increasingly, the newscasts became irrelevant for Iraqis," one source told The Washington Post in May. "They're not really interested in the Laci Peterson (murder) case."

At about the same time that Don North resigned, the anchor of the new Iraqi broadcasts, Ahmad Rikabi, also quit in disgust. "The people of Iraq, including the Sunni Muslims, are not about to turn against their liberators, but they are being incited to do so. These channels contribute to tension within Iraq. You need television at their level," he told Reuters.

The complaints from Rikabi and others were the same as other aspects of the occupation: The U.S. was unprepared to rule postwar Iraq. The communications workers who had run the TV and radio stations were mostly fired, just as the Iraqi army was summarily dismissed -- and those Iucky enough to land jobs with IMN/Al-Iraqiya were underpaid even by Iraq's low standards, or not paid at all. Iraqis resented that the best jobs went to exiles brought back by the U.S. like Rikabi (one newspaper noted that the announcer's accents showed that they had clearly spent most of their lives in Canada or Britain). And above all, there were fights about American censorship and editorial control.

Future control over Al-Iraqiya is yet another rebuilding job that the U.S. has put on the auction block. The names of companies bidding for the project has not been announced, but it is known that the BBC and Britain's independent ITN are among those interested, as is the Lebanese Broadcasting Company and a few American companies that specialize in public relations. Most believe that SAIC will hold on to the contract at least through the end of 2004, given the dangers of operating in Iraq; the BBC abruptly cancelled its training program when violence recently began escalating.

on efforts to censor Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya

IMN studios
Rehearsals for a TV broadcast in the Iraqi Meida Network studio in central Baghdad
Since the Iraq occupation began, the U.S. and Britian have charged Al-Jazeera (based in Qatar) and Al-Arabiya (UAE) with inciting violence and cooperating with anti-American forces. Last month, in a step condemned by journalists worldwide, CPA officials raided the Baghdad bureau of Al-Arabiya and barred it from working in Iraq.

Al-Iraqiya broadcasts cover between 60 - 85 percent of Iraq, which is critical to reach the Iraqi audience -- for now. Satellite TV dishes were banned under Saddam (one year in prison for a second offense) and are still rare in Iraq, although they are now a top-selling item. This is bad news for the Pentagon; a recent survey by the CPA shows that Iraqis that do have dishes watch Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya about twice as much as Al-Iraqiya -- and they also trust them twice as much as the American offering.

To compete with these two Arab stations, the U.S. is spending $62 million to launch its own satellite network, Al-Hurra ("The Free One"). Starting soon with broadcasts from outside Washington D.C. (!), Al-Hurra will eventually have news bureaus throughout the Mideast, just like its competitors.

Al-Hurra will be patterned after Radio Sawa, a controversial pop music radio station aimed at Arab youth, and Al-Hurra's news director is Mouafac Harb, former news director of Sawa. In a recent NY Times interview, Harb promised that Al-Hurra will provide "objective, balanced news" that can't be found on other Arabic satellite channels. As an example, Harb told the Times that Al-Jazeera tends to point out that the Israelis were flying "American-made" aircraft. Al-Hurra will not do that, he promised.

Harb used nearly identical language when earlier describing the editorial mission of Radio Sawa, saying that news reports heard there "do not take sides in reporting the news." A frequent example he gives is that broadcasters "de-emotionalize" news by not referring to Palestinian suicide bombers as martyrs. "We separate between news and opinion, which is something [that] also may sound like Journalism 101," he said in a .January interview with Jim Lehrer. "But again, we're dealing with the Middle East."

Is that the only way Sawa editorializes? A same-day comparison of Sawa and BBC reporting made by Electronic Intifada editor Ali Abunimah last year showed that Harb's approach is hardly as fair and balanced as he claims. On a day in August Sawa reported that three Palestinians had been injured by an Israeli "operation," but only the BBC added the important detail that these were civilians, one of them a sixteen year-old girl. Abunimah found that the BBC highlighted a World Bank report that over half of the Palestinians are living in extreme poverty, but Sawa didn't mention the report at all, instead offering an upbeat item about a planned meeting between Israel's defense minister and the new Palestinian interior minister.

Like al-Hurra, Radio Sawa faces stiff competition; both Britian's BBC and France's Radio Monte Carlo have respected and popular Arabic broadcasts. Sawa, with a yearly budget of $35 million, is controversial even within the Voice of America organization because it replaced the VOA's Arabic language broadcasts. "I don't know what advantage we gain by primarily playing pop music to the Arab world," Tim Shamble, president of the VOA journalists' guild told the Washington Post in March. "You may gain a larger audience of teenagers. That's like feeding candy to kids. But I don't think we are following the mission given us by the VOA charter of representing America in a comprehensive way to the rest of the world."

Harb and others argue that the regular VOA broadcasts had a fraction of the listenership that Sawa has since attracted. A Nov. 2003 survey released by the U.S. claims that nearly half of all Iraqis in the major cities listen to Sawa regularly, and an earlier survey found Radio Sawa just as popular in other Mideastern countries. But those surveys must be read carefully; the percentage of regular listeners almost exactly matches the percentage of people that said they viewed the U.S. "very favorably." And while Sawa's mix of pop and pounding disco beats is popular, neither survey asked if the listeners stay around for the newscasts. A BBC roundtable discussion on Sawa last year found that Arab youth are apparently turning off when the short news segments begin. "It's like listening to Israeli radio. It's biased," a 22 year-old Jordanian said.

Pentagon's Plan To Bypass U.S. TV Networks

The Bush Administration may not win Iraq's hearts and minds via Radio Sawa, Al-Hurra, and Al-Iraqiya, but at least it's doling out American propaganda honestly. These new radio and TV broadcasts are only updated versions of the old Voice of America model; the audience knows we own and control the station, and viewers/listeners can weigh that in to the credibility given to news reports. But the Pentagon is launching yet another media operation targeting the U.S. and this time, it's not clear whether viewers will know that they are watching government- sponsored news.

Unofficially dubbed "C-SPAN Baghdad," the objective is to provide a 24 hour satellite feed live from Iraq, bypassing U.S. network and cable news operations.

"It's C-SPAN with spin," CBS 60 Minutes' Morley Safer told the New York Observer. "It's a way of trying to control the bad news, it's as simple as that. Or at least ease the blow, I suppose."

The goal is to provide news content directly to local stations, following the success of September's media blitz by Bush, Rumsfeld, and other high-ranking officials who gave interviews to TV stations in smaller markets, such as Des Moines. "Part of the argument is that those of us in local TV ask softball questions and aren't skilled enough to separate the real news from the pure spin. It's pretty insulting," Dave Busiek, news director of the CBS affiliate in Des Moines told the Washington Post.

There's no guarantee that a local interview will be a cakewalk, however; it was at a small station where Gov. George Bush stumbled badly in 2000 by being unable to name world leaders -- a simple, but revealing question that the network news crowd never thought to ask. Instead, the Pentagon's advantage is that local TV markets are highly competitive, and "exclusive" stories are always hyped in station promos and featured in the newscast. "If I could have a live interview with Ambassador Bremer, for instance, in my 6 o'clock newscast, that's a tempting possibility and I have no doubt it would be valuable for our viewers," Busiek added. Exclusives are usually stretched out as long as possible (even over several days), which also means that interviews are unlikely to be edited to fit a news slot.

Beyond live interviews, another leverage that the Pentagon has over local stations is that the feed is free and stories are likely to contain some kind of a regional hook. This raises a more serious problem; how will the stations identify the source of news stories? "I'm sure a lot of local stations will use it," Safer told the Observer. "Sooner or later -- it may be later -- people start having serious doubts about what they're seeing or listening to if it has this label on it. I suppose a lot of stations won't put a label on it. Will it say, 'Government Handout?'"

It's also curious that the operation is being run by the Pentagon and not the State Dept. One reason might be a law blocking the USIA from domestic propaganda: "...the United States Information Agency shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States, and no program material prepared by the United States Information Agency shall be distributed within the United States..." (22 USC Sec. 1461-1a)

But blogger Chris Allbritton contacted Newhouse School of Journalism communications law prof. Joel Kaplan, who says there's nothing technically illegal about the broadcasts. Kaplan compared the format to canned interviews with members of Congress, which are often rebroadcast without noting that the interviewer is probably a Congressional aide. At the same time, Kaplan says, it's a technique that relies on journalistic laziness -- and that's exactly why the Bush administration is using this approach. "It's up to the journalists to decide what is propaganda or not," he says.

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Albion Monitor December 24, 2003 (

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