29 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 6
MAKING TELEVISION 'GOOD ENOUGH TO WATCH' IN IRAQ
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Media critic Marshall McLuhan once described television as a "cool" medium that reduces people, passions, and places to the dimensions of a small blue screen. Yet in ways McLuhan likely never imagined when he first conceived of the "global village" that the passions and prejudices incited by biased media coverage can be fiery indeed, as the recent bloodshed in Kosova illustrates.
Control of the media is hotly contested, especially in conflict zones, where -- as was once said by journalists covering the Balkans wars -- "television is the continuation of war by other means."
In Iraq, the stakes are high as various large media projects that have faltered in the past year are reorganized. Television will be a crucial factor for binding together the country when sovereignty passes to the Iraqis this summer, and will someday be the centerpiece of efforts to conduct free elections there.
Veteran broadcaster Stephen Claypole is chairman of the London-based broadcast consulting company DMA-Media, Ltd. Last year, he served as temporary international media adviser to what was then known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq, bringing to the job his previous experience in Kosova. Like other Westerners and Iraqis brought to the project, Claypole was initially filled with enthusiasm at the prospect of helping Iraqi television get back on its feet with the creation of the Iraq Media Network (IMN).
"At the moment the statue of [former Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] came down, the trucks started rolling in from Amman and satellite TV became a boom industry, one of the few success stories," he told "RFE/RL Media Matters" in a recent interview. At least 30-35 percent of Iraqi homes now have satellite dishes, which are sold at bazaars for $100.
Yet the original IMN project was plagued with difficulties, from mismatched equipment and delivery delays to such challenges as run-ins with a shady character pretending to be a "director-general" and offering "protection," Claypole recalls. "The whole issue of broadcasting is symptomatic of the complete shambles of the postwar preparations," says Claypole. Aside from technical problems, broadcasting suffered from too much effort by the authorities of the U.S.-led coalition to exercise "spin control" and manage the news, he said. The project wound up serving more as the voice of the occupation than the voice of the Iraqi people.
In January, the Melbourne-based Harris Corporation was awarded a one-year, $96 million contract from the Pentagon to develop and operate the Iraq Media Network. The company will equip two national radio channels and two national television channels -- one for entertainment and one for news -- and will be assisted by Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International and Al Fawares, a Kuwaiti company with Iraqi ownership. A good portion of the budget will have to go to security for the studios, which will be inside the "Green Zone," and for the transmitters outside it.
The new management and infusion of funds could mean the project will get on a sounder footing. Claypole is hoping for its success, but remains somewhat skeptical. "If the IMN continues to be a mouthpiece for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Americans, it will have a very low audience. But if the intention is to transmogrify it into a public-service broadcaster for Iraq [that is] guided by an independent board and system of governance, it might pick up a substantial audience," he said. "But it will always be tainted by having been once the voice of the CPA."
Claypole believes a great deal of training will be needed for broadcasters and that editorial content will need a "huge amount of work." Although many questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the so-called Marshal Plan of Advice given to the former Soviet Union in the form of seminars and technical assistance during the 1990s, Claypole says a lot of funding should be invested in training. "You need to create an Iraqi management team that will understand the advantages of being independent and promoting freedom of expression and liberty," he said. For that, the right influential people must be put into place.
One veteran of media regulation who is determined to help bring about professional and independent media in Iraq is Simon Haselock. After tours of duty in Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina working to change a climate of hate-filled airwaves, Haselock was named director of media development and regulation with the CPA in Iraq this year. In a recent interview with "RFE/RL Media Matters," Haselock denied that he would serve as any kind of censor. Instead, he said, he will attempt to get a public-service broadcasting station up and running, using the old Iraqi state-run terrestrial station as a foundation.
"We do not want the future Iraqi broadcasting to be a state organ. We want to make it a public service," Haselock said, contrasting the type of state broadcasting manipulated by the Hussein regime with government-funded public broadcasting in the vein of the BBC.
Among Haselock's first tasks is to help create a governing body for the media that will be representative of the audience. Unlike Bosnia, where he had greater control, the Iraq project will be run differently. "What we learned from other places is that you want to use the local people at very early stages. You shouldn't run it for them, and then hand it over to them at some stage," he said.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, announced on 24 March that a new Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (ICMC) will soon be in place to regulate publicly owned media and to create a Public-Broadcasting Service (PBS). Haselock anticipates that some 18 Iraqis will be selected from about 30 nominees -- nine for the ICMC and nine for the PBS. The selection process will be a "three-way choice" between the CPA, the Governing Council, and its media committee.
Asked about the composition of the ICMC, Haselock deflected concerns that the process could be as politicized and contentious as was the recent drafting of the interim Iraqi Constitution. "The criteria are very strict. They will be proven people of impeccable reputation, recognized stature," he said. The commissioners will not necessarily be broadcasters and will not be chosen on the basis of ethnic or religious affiliations, but on the basis of their public standing.
The job of the ICMC will be to regulate the frequency spectrum and to issue broadcasting licenses. Like many things in Iraq, the media effort appears to be rushing to closure before the 30 June deadline for the handover of power. After that, Haselock has been asked to remain as an adviser and is considering that possibility. He also anticipates that a tender will be mounted for two commercial television stations that will be formed to compete with the PBS.
Meanwhile, what are Iraqis watching now? By the CPA's own admission, in a seven-city survey conducted in October by the U.S. State Department, only 36 percent of those polled about their viewing habits said they rely on the CPA-sponsored IMN for news, although 62 percent said they get their news from local television. (See the complete survey at http://www.cpa-iraq.org/audio/20031117_Nov-16-INR-media_habits_survey.html.) Among Iraqis with satellite access (estimated at one-third of those polled), the pan-Arab channel Al-Arabiyah (37 percent) and the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera (26 percent) were the networks of choice for news. But among those Iraqis with only local television, 59 percent said they depend on the IMN for news about their country, the CPA reported.
Western commentators generally view the content of the Arabic stations, which is often critical of the occupation, as biased. In February, the Iraqi Governing Council barred Al-Jazeera from covering its official activities because it had allegedly "shown disrespect to prominent religious and national figures," AP reported 31 January. The reason was a show called "Israeli Infiltration In Iraq" that claimed that IGC members and political figures are being influenced by Israel. Al-Arabiyah was also banned from IGC events after airing an audiotape purportedly of Hussein urging Iraqis to resist the U.S.-led occupation. The twin topics of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq are endless, deeply felt subjects for Arabic television, which experts say has become much better at spot-news coverage and open debate than it was a decade ago. But it is still not covering most Arab governments with quite the same critical eye it has for the West.
Avi Jorish, a Middle East scholar writing for the "Middle East Quarterly" (Winter 2004), is concerned not only about anti-Americanism, but about the celebration of radical Islam on some pan-Arabic television that can encourage violence. Al-Manar -- the official television station of the Lebanon-based Hizballah, a terrorist group supported by Iran -- is undermining the Iraqi occupation throughout the region, Jorish says. The station's satellite broadcasts provide heavy coverage of the Palestinian intifada and Islamist resistance in general.
Jorish obtained an interview with Al-Manar officials in which they admitted that they cover and promote Palestinian suicide-bombings as acts of martyrdom, while not actually directing them. An Al-Manar graphics specialist told Jorish that music videos are used to "help people on the way to committing what you in the West call a suicide mission." Al-Manar was the first station to broadcast the canard that Jews stayed home from work and survived the 11 September 2001 World Trade Center attacks. And, since the military campaign in Iraq, it has repeatedly broadcast people chanting the slogan "Death to America."
Haselock and others knowledgeable about the media scene in Iraq say that while the audience for Al-Manar might be growing in the Arab world, viewership in Iraq is low. The CPA's figures put it at 1 percent among those who have access to satellite television.
While a law on television and regulations for satellite television will soon be drafted, the ICMC obviously cannot control stations outside of Iraq. Asked about the problem of inciting hatred and violence on some Arabic stations, as well as the anti-American rhetoric, Haselock commented: "Why should we do anything about it? We should be concentrating on whether there is plurality. TV should be good enough so that people want to watch it. The only way to take on the Al-Jazeeras is to produce good TV."
The United States recently launched the Arab-language satellite-television station Al-Hurra to battle for hearts and minds in the Arab world, mindful of how much anti-American sentiment is bolstered and fostered by television.
Although the kind of regulation that Haselock did in Bosnia is credited by press freedom monitors such as Freedom House with removing hatred and gross bias from Bosnian television, Haselock believes that his function in Iraq -- and that of the new commission -- will not so much be to regulate heavily as to create an environment in which public and commercial broadcasting can flourish. He likens the job to establishing the field demarcations and rules for a soccer match. "You need to set rules, which both teams have agreed to, and both teams must accept an arbiter and the consequences if people transgress rules," he reasoned.
Groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) are more immediately concerned now with securing the safety of the players on the field. Twenty-one journalists have been killed in the line of duty since the cessation of hostilities, including a sharp spike in the last few weeks. Two Al-Arabiyah journalists were killed by U.S. troops in an incident at a checkpoint on 18 March. The same day, a journalist for the CPA-backed Diyala TV was killed and several others injured when unknown assailants fired on a company bus in Baqouba. The CPJ says that journalists face attacks on their hotels, deliberate shootings for their reporting, carjackings and hold-ups, and random incidents related to working in a war zone. On 24 March, an Iraqi translator working for "Time" magazine was shot and severely injured in what "The New York Times" described as "the latest in a series of attacks on Iraqis working for Western news organizations."
Joel Campagna, Middle East expert at the CPJ, says that while his organization has called Iraq "the most dangerous place in the world" for journalists, Iraqi reporters have made an impressive comeback after years of being shackled by oppressive censorship. While satellite television is booming, terrestrial television is also very influential, Campagna told "RFE/RL Media Matters," especially taking into account reports of viewers in various regions of Iraq and throughout the region. He also noted that there is an explosion of newspapers, from professional dailies to extremely partisan magazines and tabloids -- papers that Haselock says will be more difficult to regulate than television.
The drafting of the new media law is being closely watched by many foreign and domestic experts and by journalists in Iraq. A key issue will be whether insult and libel will be a crime punishable by imprisonment, and whether prosecutors will be entitled to file libel cases to defend public officials. Havelock and groups like the CPJ favor the liberal international norm of making libel a civil offense, but they can only make recommendations to the Iraqis themselves, who must draft and live with the law.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is the editor of "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."
IRAQI MEDIA STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS.An editorial published by Iraqi reporter Hiwa Osman in "The Washington Post" on 21 March highlighted the current state of the media in Iraq. While the mere existence of some 200 newspapers is a profound development from just one year ago, when former President Saddam Hussein's state-run media was the sole source of information for most Iraqis, the quality of reporting remains weak and, at times, sensational, Osman points out. "Purging Iraq of the type of thinking and journalism [Hussein] fostered" has proven to be a real challenge, she writes.
Osman, who works with London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), is helping train Iraqi journalists on journalistic standards. The IWPR has set up a training center in the Mansur District of Baghdad with the support of the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID). The organization is conducting journalism-training programs in the northern Iraqi city of Al-Sulaymaniyah as well.
The Baghdad center has already trained some 100 journalists, many with no prior experience in reporting, IWPR Iraq Program Manager Maggy Zanger told "RFE/RL Iraq Report" in a 24 March e-mail. Zanger said that many journalists ask for additional one-on-one training after participating in the center's three-week training course. The center appears to have had a positive impact on Iraqi journalists. Some 15-20 reporter-trainees regularly attend weekly editorial meetings to pitch story ideas as well, she said. The BBC World Service Trust is also working to train Iraqi journalists and to set up local and regional radio and television broadcasting stations in southern Iraq, according to the DFID website (http://www.dfid.gov.uk).
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) also appears intent on raising journalistic standards in Iraq. CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer announced on 24 March that he will establish an Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (ICMC) and an Iraqi public-broadcasting service, RFE/RL reported. "In a country such as Iraq is today, government-owned media exists to inform the public, not to promote the political interests of the president or the prime minister of the moment. For that reason, I intend soon to establish a new Iraqi Communications and Media Commission which will regulate these publicly owned media," Bremer said in a public address marking the 100-day countdown to the 30 June transfer of sovereignty.
"Like the oil beneath the ground, Iraq's airwaves belong to all the Iraqi people. To ensure that these airwaves are administered in the public interest, I will create the public-broadcasting service to take care of the public broadcasting and the Iraqi communications commission will administer their use independently of the government," he added.
Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on 19 March issued a report that concluded there is a "determination [among Iraqi media professionals] to break the stranglehold of political control" (http://ifj.org). The organization contends that Iraqi journalists are subject to measures that try to "discipline, control, and censor information" in Iraq. In a separate report issued on 15 March, the IFJ accused U.S. authorities in Iraq of attempting to "control and intimidate" the media (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 19 March 2004). The report cited the detention of journalists and unknown "internal regulations" enforced by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq to control journalists as well as new rules initiated by the coalition that require journalists to register and to obtain coalition-issued press cards to work in Iraq.
The IFJ is not alone in its criticism of the coalition in recent days. Some 30 Iraqi journalists voiced their outrage at a 19 March press conference in Baghdad attended by Bremer and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell over the killing of two Al-Arabiyah journalists in Iraq last week, apparently at the hands of coalition forces. Powell pledged a full investigation, but said that "terrorists" were responsible for the killings, the website of the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 20 March. "At a scene where there's been a battle or an explosion or something of that nature, there tends to be confusion," Powell told reporters. "Mistakes happen. Tragedies can occur." At least 21 journalists have been killed in Iraq over the past year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army released a report on 22 March into the 17 August death of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, the news agency reported. Dana was killed by a U.S. soldier outside the Abu Ghurayb prison in Baghdad. The report said the soldier who shot Dana had "reasonable certainty" that Dana was about to fire a rocket-propelled grenade. The report concluded that a lack of procedures for communicating the presence of journalists among U.S. troops contributed to the incident. Dana was carrying his camera and reportedly had alerted U.S. troops to his presence at the prison before he was shot, according to Reuters. (For more information on the current media environment in Iraq, see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 27 November 2003). (Kathleen Ridolfo)
IRANIAN NEWS AGENCIES FLOURISHING.The Azad News Agency started producing test dispatches on 16 March and will begin its regular service in May, becoming the newest example of a recent flourishing of such agencies in Iran. Azad becomes Iran's ninth news agency.
The country's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) began life as Pars Agency in 1934. The Foreign Ministry and, later, other state institutions ran it until 1963, when the Information Ministry took over and renamed it Pars News Agency. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the Information Ministry was renamed the Guidance Ministry, and Pars News Agency was renamed IRNA. In September 2001, current IRNA head Abdullah Nasseri-Taheri took over from Fereidun Verdinejad, who had run the agency for 10 years. IRNA publishes several publications, including the Persian-language "Iran," the English-language "Iran Daily," and a monthly about interior design called "Iran-i Azin." IRNA's website is http://www.irna.ir
The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), which receives some government funding and is affiliated with the University Jihad, a state-backed students' organization, began operations in 1998. The agency writes about issues relevant to students, and ISNA Director-General Abolfazl Fateh complained that in June 2003 police beat him with batons after he objected to their throwing stones at protesting students (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 June 2003). Its website is http://www.isna.ir
The privately owned Fars News Agency received its license in November 1998, Reuters reported at the time. It actually began operating in 2002 and is headed by Said Najar-Nobari, who previously headed the Tehran Justice Department's public relations bureau. Other individuals associated with Fars News Agency have a similarly conservative background. Managing Editor Mehdi Fazel is editor in chief of the daily "Javan," and the board of directors includes "Farda" editor Alireza Shemirani and "Resalat" journalists Abdullah Moghaddam and Akbar Nabavi. Its website is http://www.farsnews.com
The Pupils Association News Agency started operation in September 2002 as a joint effort of the Education Ministry and the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry. It is affiliated with IRNA, and its objectives include training reporters and reporting news that interests students. Its website is http://www.irna.ir/pana
SHANA (Shabakeh-yi Ettelaat-i Naft va Energi) News Agency, which is affiliated with the Petroleum Ministry, began work in early 2003, according to a December dispatch from IRNA. Its website is http://www.shana.ir/pe
Affiliated with the Worker's House (Khaneh-yi Kargar) labor organization, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) was launched in February 2003. It is headed by Masud Heidari and one of its founders was Ali-Reza Mahjoub of the Islamic Labor Party. Heidari said on 10 December 2002 that the agency would discuss workers' demands, IRNA reported. However, it does not seem to run any more worker-related news than other agencies do. Its website is http://www.ilna.ir
Veterans of the Iran-Iraq War founded Mehr News Agency on 22 June 2003. Its managing director is Parviz Ismaili, a columnist with the conservative "Entekhab" newspaper. Its website is http://www.mehrnews.com
The establishment of Mowj News Agency was announced in "Iran" in July 2003, while ILNA reported that it began trial operations in September 2003. Its website is http://www.mowjnews.com
The newest entrant is Azad News Agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Open University, Azad chief Mohammad Reza Karimi said, adding that its objectives are communicating with and exchanging information with the world's other universities, IRNA reported on 16 March. "The [Islamic Open University], with more than 2.5 million students and graduates, 25,000 academic staff, and 220 branches across Iran and abroad, is the largest Iranian university and academic complex, and therefore the establishment of a news agency to cover the above mentioned meets a longstanding need," Karimi said. Karimi added that the agency will have offices in Ahvaz, Arak, Isfahan, Kerman, Mashhad, Shiraz, Sari, Semnan, Tabriz, and Tehran. Its website is http://www.ana.ir (Bill Samii)
KAZAKHSTAN.On 18 March, an RFE/RL feature focused on the recent passage of a new media law in Kazakhstan that many journalists and media watchers consider repressive. The piece also discusses recent court cases and incidents of violence against journalists, all of which taken together have prompted media organizations such as Reporters Without Borders to decry the state of press freedom in the country. (See the complete RFE/RL report at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/3/8E39B6A2-884C-410F-B256-A5914E23AA69.html)
KOSOVA.On 19 March, an RFE/RL feature highlighted the role of the media in the recent outbreak of violence in Kosova. Local television "broadcast repeatedly" an interview with a 13-year-old ethnic Albanian boy who was the lone survivor of an attack when two Serbs let loose their dogs on him and three others. Those broadcasts reportedly fanned outrage in the community and ignited the violence that has claimed some 30 lives. Authorities are now investigating whether the media acted responsibly. (See the complete RFE/RL report at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/3/034B7105-9D90-4B91-B9B3-7DFADD724614.html)
UKRAINE.A 12 March RFE/RL feature described a recent European Parliament resolution criticizing Ukraine and focusing on Kyiv's recent crackdown on the media. Members of the European Parliament expressed concern about the recent closures of the newspaper "Silski visti" and Radio Kontynent, as well as charges that the administration of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has been using the secret services to spy on and intimidate journalists. (See the complete RFE/RL report at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/3/C7BDC4EC-29F7-4297-ABAE-0DC436B54BC8.html See related stories about media developments in Ukraine at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/3/B75334B6-E65B-4BFF-80D2-73AB6FD372F7.html and http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/3/D1EDFC52-D138-4D0A-8A16-8F5C93859F18.html)