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Iraq: Ambitious U.S. Media Plans Take Shape

  • Sergei Danilochkin

Ambitious plans by the U.S. government for Iraq's media are taking shape. Projects worth around $250 million have been approved and are under way to upgrade and expand the country's broadcast and print media.

Prague, 13 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq has awarded a $96 million contract to a U.S. producer of communications equipment to run and upgrade Iraq's broadcast and print media for the next 12 months.

In a separate effort, a U.S.-funded, 24-hour Arabic-language satellite television network will start broadcasting to the Middle East within weeks. Part of that effort will focus on delivering news and information programming to an Iraqi audience.

Florida-based Harris Corporation has forged a partnership with two Middle Eastern media companies to develop the network, currently known as Al-Iraqiyah. The network will upgrade and expand media outlets in place under the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

Howard Lance, the head of Harris Corp., says the company and its partners are happy to help in rebuilding Iraq's broadcast infrastructure and turning it into a more modern news operation. "The project that we have won is for us to develop and implement the Iraq Media Network [IMN], which is a combination of two radio channels, two television channels, and a daily newspaper," he said. "And ultimately, the objective here is to get in place an organization that is staffed by local Iraqis and governed by some sort of board of directors and over time has the ability to operate at a very high standard relative to developing local news content and broadcast, local entertainment content and broadcast, and the like."

According to Lance, the IMN -- when completely up and running -- will have 30 TV and radio transmitters, three broadcast studios, and 12 bureaus around Iraq. A national newspaper, "Al-Sabah" is also integrated into the IMN.

After U.S.-led troops ousted Saddam Hussein's regime in April, the state-run broadcasters were seized. Since then, they have been run by a U.S. defense contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Its efforts were criticized for the inadequate audience the programs gathered and management problems.

The postwar director of Iraqi Television, Ahmad al-Rikaby, who resigned last August, complained of inadequate funding, equipment, and training for staff members. Rikaby said the problems made it hard for the network to meet its goal of supplying objective news.

Al-Rikaby told the Associated Press that the IMN was only able to broadcast 16 hours a day while competitors Al-Jazeera and Iran's Al-Alam TV networks were putting out 24-hour news programs.

Harris Corp. says it will provide the IMN with the necessary equipment and management expertise, while one partner, the Lebanese Broadcast Corporation, will help improve training and content. A second partner, Al-Fawares of Kuwait, will help build up the newspaper business.

"The Lebanese Broadcast Corporation has significant experience in television and radio broadcasting. They will be training all of the employees for the television and radio broadcast portion of this project, putting in place processes and procedures to develop original contents for the media. And our second partner, Al-Fawares, which is a Kuwait company with significant Iraqi ownership, will be providing all of the infrastructure for the newspaper side of the business," Lance said.

Lance says the free flow of information is crucial to any modern society, and the partner companies are committed to making this ambitious goal a reality.

He said the current contract can be extended for two additional six-month periods for a total potential value of $165 million. He did not know if the IMN would remain under U.S. military supervision or be handed over to Iraqi authorities after sovereignty is transferred to a new government on 1 July.

U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently expressed concern about the U.S. media program in Iraq. Lugar told the White House that the State Department should take responsibility for supervising the IMN after 1 July.

In a separate effort, a U.S. government-funded satellite television network in Arabic will start broadcasting within a few weeks. It will be called Al-Hurra and broadcast from studios in Washington and bureaus in the Middle East.

According to Joan Mower, the communications coordinator of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which also oversees RFE/RL broadcasting, the new television network will have "as many as 200 people working there. And it will be an all-Arabic-language news and information network. It will be 24 hours a day. And much of the programming will be news programming, informational programming, lifestyle programming with the heavy emphasis on news like on Cable News Network."

But she said it will also "feature other, different types of programs such as sports and entertainment and lifestyle. Anyone in the Middle East who has a satellite dish will be able to pull it down and watch it."

Mower says special emphasis will be placed on news and information flows to Iraq, where television has become a major source of information. "In Iraq we will have a separate stream. It will be a terrestrial stream, so when we get that launched, people in Iraq will also be able to watch our network," she said.

Al-Hurra will cover the entire Arab-speaking region from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf. Its operation budget for 2004 was approved for $62 million as well as $40 million specially earmarked for broadcasting to Iraq.

Mower says the U.S. initiative is a reaction to the news media environment in the Arabic-speaking world, which is dominated by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai's Al-Arabiyah satellite TV stations. The U.S. administration has often been critical of their broadcasts, calling them biased.
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