The Iraqi umbrella opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, started television transmissions by satellite to Iraq this month. The group plans a round-the-clock schedule of programming, including news and entertainment, as part of its efforts to work for regime change in the country. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.
Prague, 22 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department announced this month that the Iraqi National Congress (INC) umbrella opposition group has started broadcasting to Iraq with a budget of some $2.7 million a year.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters that the satellite television programs are intended to give the Iraqi people programming that "reflects truth [and] news about events in the world -- things they're unable to get under the oppressive regime of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein."
The opposition group has said it plans to broadcast a full range of programs, from news to movies to soccer matches. Called TV Liberty, the station will offer two hours of Arabic programming at first, to eventually eight hours. The programming will then be repeated three times daily in a round-the-clock operation.
So far, the broadcasts -- which began on 16 August -- have presented only the station's logo with information about the radio frequencies used for transmissions. But the INC says that programming could begin as early as next month.
The programming is funded from a $6 million grant which the INC received in June as part of ongoing assistance from Washington to build its political network and develop support within Iraq. The London-based exile organization has a broad endorsement from the U.S. Congress, which in 1998 passed an Iraqi Liberation Act authorizing, but not compelling, the U.S. government to provide up to $97 million in aid to approved opposition groups.
The INC's spokesman, Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, told RFE/RL recently that the television programming will be beamed by the commercial Telstar-12 satellite to reach Iraqis in Iraq and across the Arab world:
"We want to be a source of information [for] viewers not only inside Iraq but also from the large community of Iraqis in the region around Iraq. Of course, we have the liberated areas in northern Iraq where there are 3 million Iraqis. We have the Iraqis in Iran, in Syria, and in Jordan. And particularly in Jordan, there is a sort of transient community of about 300,000 people where Iraqis come out of Iraq, come to Jordan, and go back. So they will get exposure there."
More than 2 million Iraqis are reported to be living outside the country, both for political and economic reasons. Most live in neighboring states, with others scattered across the Mideast and Europe.
Inside Iraq, would-be viewers in much of the country will have a difficult time seeing the programming. Saddam's regime forbids citizens from owning satellite dishes and punishes violators harshly. Only in Kurdish-majority northern Iraq, which is outside Baghdad's control, are people free to own satellite dishes and receivers.
The INC estimates that in Baghdad there may be some 100,000 satellite dishes, mainly owned by citizens who have bribed Iraqi officials. It estimates there are another 3.5 million satellite receivers in the north of Iraq, which is administered by two rival Kurdish factions. But the exact count of receivers across Iraq is unknown because no official statistics are available.
RFE/RL Iraqi Service correspondent Ahmad Al-Rikaby in London says that estimates of the number of satellite receivers in Iraq vary widely:
"No one knows exactly how many receivers exist in northern Iraq or in the areas controlled by the Iraqi regime. The common estimation among people in northern Iraq is something like 500,000 [receivers] in northern Iraq. There is no ban on owning a satellite receiver in northern Iraq, and you can find one in the smallest village in that part of Iraq."
"[That] is completely different from the situation in the areas under the control of the Iraqi government. There are reports that some people inside [Baghdad-controlled areas of Iraq] enjoy watching satellite programs, but they are either close to the government, or members of the government, or rich people, and one has to apply for special permission from the government in order to get a satellite receiver. It's not easy -- you should be very close to the government or very rich in order to bribe someone to get this receiver."
Access to the INC's programming also could be limited by the fact that the organization is broadcasting with a digital signal that requires viewers to have digital receivers. Such receivers commonly cost $400 to $500 in Western markets. That is a huge sum in sanctions-hit Iraq, where a university professor in Baghdad earns some $4 to $5 a month. A standard analog receiver, which costs some $250, is not compatible with digital programming.
Sharif Ali says the INC chose digital because most commercial satellite stations are phasing out the use of older analog technology, which produces a poorer picture. Sharif Ali explains:
"The mainline satellite television stations are switching to digital, so the viewer eventually will not have the choice of analog -- all the analog stations are disappearing and are being switched to digital, particularly in the Middle East. So inevitably, viewers, if they want to watch satellite TV, will have to purchase a digital receiver. So, we said we might as well start off with digital from now, rather than have to switch from analog to digital later on."
As the INC begins broadcasting, it will have to compete for viewers with a range of other broadcasters already reaching the region. People in northern Iraq have access to the Mideast's full range of commercial Arabic-language satellite TV stations, as well as Kurdish-language stations.
Among those broadcasting to northern Iraq are several individual Iraqi opposition groups, some of them members of the umbrella INC. Northern Iraq's two Kurdish factions (the KDP and PUK) and the Iran-based SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) have their own television programs. The London-based Iraqi National Accord (INA) and the Iraqi Communist Party broadcast radio programs.
The INC counts the KDP and PUK as members. It also officially includes SCIRI and INA, though they have frozen their memberships over political differences. The Iraqi Communist Party is not an INC member.
Sharif Ali says that the INC station hopes to compete with these stations by offering viewers a more global perspective:
"Those stations are local channels and they deal with not so much local issues, but with local audiences. And we would attempt to be able to deal with wider issues and wider audiences and bring more subjects that are globally interesting with, as much as possible, an Iraq twist to it. [We] aim to have a news-gathering network and a programming network that is international in its reach [which] those channels at the moment don't have."
The INC hopes to attract viewers by offering not only news programming -- including talk-shows and international call-in programs -- but also entertainment and films. The UPI news agency recently quoted the INC's Washington consultant Francis Brooke as saying that the organization is currently in negotiations to show the 1999 American film "Three Kings." The film focuses on four U.S. soldiers who help a group of citizens in southern Iraq flee to Iran to escape persecution from Saddam's troops during the last days of the Gulf War.
Brooke also told UPI that news programs on the INC station would look at political changes within the regime, the movement of Iraqi forces within the country, and "economic matters like the price of eggs in [Baghdad-controlled] Basra versus the price of eggs in the Kurdish territory, or infant mortality statistics."
The television programming originates in London, then is sent by fiber-optic cable under the Atlantic to a satellite station at an undisclosed location in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland. From there, it is broadcast via satellite to the Mideast.
The INC has said its annual budget for the transmissions includes $1.5 million for programming and studio use and $1.2 million for satellite time.