[excerpt]: It hired the same performers who sang praises to Mr Hussein as "the servant of God" to sing odes to Iraq's new-found freedom. State TV is required to relay the statements of the ruling American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its appointed Iraqi Governing Council, earning it a reputation as the Pentagon's Pravda. Freed from Saddam's ban on satellite dishes, a third of Iraqis have switched to other stations.
The Economist (London)
December 13-19, 2003
A chance missed
"THERE is no information available at this time," reads the message on the website of the Iraqi Media Network, the intended precursor of a hoped-for revamped state broadcasting service and the Americans' main purveyor of news in Arabic that, after 30 years of state lies, is meant to be true. "Please check back."
Iraqis have been checking for eight months, baffled by how a nation with the world's most vibrant media can leave them still yearning for something they actually want to watch. So dull is the present service that some Iraqis may even hanker for the days when Saddam Hussein's delinquent son Uday ran the television. As a result, far more Iraqis watch two Arab satellite channels, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, both of which seem to revel in America's local tribulations.
Part of the problem is that the Pentagon assigned Iraq's broadcasting to a defence contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). So far, the firm has shown as much aptitude for delivering news as the BBC would if it had to deliver missiles. It charged the Pentagon $100m in operating and infrastructure costs but paid its broadcasters $30 a week. It hired the same performers who sang praises to Mr Hussein as "the servant of God" to sing odes to Iraq's new-found freedom. State TV is required to relay the statements of the ruling American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its appointed Iraqi Governing Council, earning it a reputation as the Pentagon's Pravda. Freed from Saddam's ban on satellite dishes, a third of Iraqis have switched to other stations.
The failure to provide useful or interesting information is not just SAIC's; it is symptomatic of a more general speech impediment. Not only does the CPA not speak Iraq's language; it rarely deigns to speak at all. Gary Thatcher, Mr Bremer's communications adviser, does not communicate himself, and often bars CPA officials, bunkered behind their concrete bollards, from answering press inquiries directly. This fosters suspicion and rumour, making the CPA seem remote and prickly. Mr Bremer rarely invites Arab journalists to his press conferences. In such self-imposed solitude, the CPA is struggling to get its message across.
Too late for a remedy? SAIC's contract is up for renewal next month and has been put up for tender. The money on offer--$98m a year for two years--at first attracted a welter of interested parties, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC and Britain's Independent Television News. The British apparently tried to persuade Mr Bremer that Iraq needs a public broadcaster, independent of the government and regulated by law, for its fledgling democracy.
It has yet to happen. Proposals to keep broadcasting out of the hands of the executive have collided with vested interests in Washington. If you give $100m, you expect some say in how it is spent, they say. The BBC, among others, is shying away. Of 28 potential bidders, only three are primarily broadcasters. Others include specialists in engineering and arms, and the Rendon Group, a public-relations firm paid by the CIA to help the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi. Even SAIC may still be interested.
Most Iraqis are in the dark about all of this. The Governing Council gave warning that if the American administration let foreigners run Iraq's broadcasting service without consultation, the transitional government due to take office in July would sever the contract.
In its search for a voice, the council has sought editorial control and a say in appointing staff. But its own commitment to press freedom is iffy. Last month, it ordered al-Arabiya to shut its Baghdad office.