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Iraq: Many Iraqis Prefer Satellite Channels To Fledgling State TV

When Iraqis sit down in front of the television, many of them say they prefer satellite broadcasts to their own revamped state channel, which was launched this summer with the funding and supervision of the U.S. civil administration. The U.S.-funded Iraqi Media Network (IMN) has AM and FM radio outlets and a television network capable of reaching about two-thirds of Iraqi homes. But Iraqis say IMN's programming presents only the American point of view, and is reminiscent of the state propaganda broadcast by the ousted regime. IMN's Iraqi managers say they are trying to do their best, but that it is hard to compete with professional satellite channels.

Baghdad, 6 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Satellite dishes have mushroomed in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in the months since Saddam Hussein was ousted from power.

Iraqis who can afford the equipment suddenly have access to a wide range of news and entertainment from the Western and Arab worlds. But the plethora of options -- from Arabic channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya to Britain's BBC World -- has meant dwindling interest in Iraqi state television, which has been relaunched under the watchful eye of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

The Iraqi Media Network (IMN) operates a television network and two radio outlets with a $6-million monthly budget provided by the United States. But the news -- which attempts to cast the U.S.-led occupation in a positive light -- has met with a cold reception from many Iraqis. They liken the programming to Saddam-era propaganda and say IMN is little more than a mouthpiece for the CPA and its chief administrator Paul Bremer.

Mustafa, a shopkeeper in his 30s, said he sees little difference between the new Iraqi television and that of the former regime. Both, he said, are "propaganda" television and give him no useful information about events in Iraq. For that, he said, he turns to Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. "Yes, I watch Iraqi TV. I don't like it," Mustafa said. "Every week Mr. Bremer comes on and it's the same thing as Saddam Hussein. The same talk, the same speech. Nothing has changed in our country."

Rawah, a watch-shop owner, stopped short of likening IMN programming to Saddam-style propaganda. But his criticism is just as damning. With too much politics and too little entertainment, IMN, he said, is simply dull. "It's not good. All the programs are meetings, and there are no songs, and it's not good," he said.

Not everyone is a critic, however. Ahmed Jalal, who runs an Iraqi nongovernmental organization, said he likes Iraqi television because it broadcasts old Iraqi folk songs, and that the station seems to be taking steps to put its programming in the ranks of the BBC or Al-Jazeera.

Shamin Rassam is an Iraqi-American hired to work with IMN. A well-known broadcaster for Hussein's Information Ministry before going into exile in 1990, Rassam said she is certain IMN's audience will grow.

She defended IMN's programming against charges of propaganda, saying that after 30 years under Saddam, Iraqis must learn to shed their skepticism of official state television. Furthermore, she admitted, the spread of satellite dishes has made competition inevitable. "All of sudden Iraq is opened to satellite," she said. "All of a sudden everybody who can afford a dish can put it on top of the roof without a government telling them 'You cannot do that, you're punished.'"

Still, she said, Iraqi state television has an important role to play. Satellite equipment costs several hundred dollars, and only a small percentage of Iraqis can afford it. "What is the percentage of Iraqis who have satellite?" she asked. "You go around the city -- how many satellite dishes do you see in comparison to [Baghdad's population of more than] 5 million? Go to the outside [of Baghdad]. How many people have satellites on their roofs?"

Rassam said that in addition to giving average Iraqis an accessible source of news and information, IMN acts as a counterbalance to what she said is extreme anti-American bias on Arabic satellite news channels. She said her station is an outlet for people who want to know what the U.S. civil administration is really accomplishing, and how plans for Iraq's reconstruction are progressing.

The IMN has had a rocky half-year. Its original director recently resigned, complaining that the limited budget made it impossible to counter the coverage of networks like Al-Jazeera. And the charges of propaganda-mongering are hard to shake. Rassam insisted there is little U.S. interference in the daily running of IMN, and that the station has never been asked to pull a story off the air.

"The Washington Post" recently cited occupation authority spokesman Dan Senor as saying that "IMN is not supposed to be the dominant media in Iraq, but one of many voices. We never viewed our goals to be built around a propaganda war."