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Iraq: Troubles At Iraqi Media Network

by Kathleen McCaulBaghdad Bulletin
July 21st, 2003

Susan Sammi, 24, is one of the young reporters at the Iraqi Media Network. She is smiling, made-up, modern and confident, and like the others, she is enthusiastic and loves her work. She knows it can be dangerous, but this doesn't stop her.

“I am determined to work and I want to learn. I want to do a good job, so I face the challenge. I don’t want to sit at home all day,” Sammi said. Sammi spent two years working for Shabat TV (the station run by Uday Saddam). After the war, she came to the Convention Center to see if she could get a job. She wasn’t a well known personality and the other staff received her with no problem.

At Shabat TV “I was just reading news and that’s it,” Sammi said. “Now I am going out into the streets and dealing with people, writing reports, getting experience in choosing shots “for the first time I am making reports, and I like it!”

Yasir Kati, 20, a cameraman for the station, looks like a free spirit in his tie-dye T-shirt, but he was frustrated before. “In the past, when I worked, all the orders and work came from the regime. There was no freedom for reporters or cameramen,” Kati said. The man charged with the job of guiding these young journalists to be responsible and independent is Don North, senior advisor for IMN. North is a experienced war reporter who made his name in Vietnam, going on to work in places such as Kuwait and South America. During the recent invasion, he was imbedded with the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division. North has been impressed with the staff’s enthusiasm and ambition, but sees the effects of years of censorship. “My reporters come to me and say “Can we criticize the Americans, the CPA?‚ I tell them of course, but you must have your facts correct,” North said.

These maxims have had an effect on Abdul Latif-Omar, 25, another reporter. His most recent radio piece was on the rumors that are often reported as fact in the Iraqi press. “The people need a perfect channel to avoid the risk’s of rum ors. We must make interviews and we must have proof,” he said. North is respected and liked by his young team, but differences of opinion occur. After a recent trip to Mosul with three of his staff members to cover the US Army’s Independence Day celebration, North suggested making the concert into an hour-long entertainment program, but Mohammad Kareem, 23, was uncertain about it. He remembers how when many people were going hungry, Uday would appear on television and feed his animals great slabs of meat, angering the viewers. Although he had enjoyed the concert, he said many Iraqis would be angry at seeing of the Americans celebrating while they are suffering. “We have a big responsibility. If you put the wrong message out, do things without feeling responsibility, your program might lead to civil war. You have to be careful, balanced,” said IMN news director Ahmed Al-Rikaby.

Al-Rikaby was born in after his father fled the Baathist Regime in 1969. “I opened my eyes to a family who were fighting Saddam Hussein and became part of this fight -- I always wanted to speak freely in Iraq but never had a chance to do so. The project of creating free media in Iraq is an honor, a dream,” he said.

For the last five years, Al-Rikaby worked for Radio for Liberty in London. He arrived a few days after American troops occupied Baghdad and started a one-man show from a tent somewhere outside the airport. He remembers being at a media conference in January, discussing what the first words the Iraqi people would hear should be. “I suggested ‘Welcome to the new Iraq‚’- I didn‚t know at that moment it would be me saying it,” he said. His vision for IMN is based on stations such as BBC or PBS - trustworthy, national and above all, independent.

Programming problems

All this enthusiasm and hope for the station is at odds with the Independent Iraqi Media Assessment Report carried out by the Baltic Media Centre, Index on Censorship, Institute for War and Peace reporting and International Media Report in May and June.

“Iraqi Media Network should be dismantled and the constituent parts all located within independent institutions,” the report stated, citing the fact that IMN is funded by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The IMAR predicts this would cause major conflicts of interest within the station and confusion over its role as an information service or a professional TV station.

“From the start, the media project was beset with problems. Bitter disputes erupted between senior US representatives on the IMN, leading at times to chaotic and at times directly competitive decision making.” Among the problems are that Hero Talabani, Jalal Talibani’s wife, was asked to overview editing. Enraged Iraqi staff threatened to strike before the proposal was withdrawn.

Recently there has been anger over a decision to screen a program called “Toward Freedom.” Although the station has a firm policy not to broadcast military products, both InfoWar Moniter and IMNA cite it as “psyops,” and Radio Netherlands give a detailed description of the program as British government propaganda.

“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s public diplomacy department commissioned and runs Towards Freedom. The Ministry of Defense’s Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood is meeting the television programming costs,” Radio Netherlands said.

Staff at IMN were worried that running a government program would ruin their credibility as an independent network. They also felt that scheduling “Toward Freedom” at 7 p.m., just before the IMN news, would create confusion between the two. Five senior IMN officials wrote a letter of protest to the managers employed by Science Application International Company to run the network.

“We respectfully request to know whose political agenda is involved here. Certainly, it is not a professionally sound programming decision to use a mediocre propaganda program from abroad to supercede our own news program! . Following an exhausting hour of “Toward Freedom, it is only the most dedicated news junkies who could tolerate it without seeking another channel.”

The program was still aired. Al-Rikaby was keen to present a united front when questioned about the program, and put it down to a “misunderstanding.”

The concert Kareem and North discussed was screened on July 10. It began with an American flag waving, and strains of the American national anthem are heard as the shot cuts to lines of American soldiers saluting in the sunset. Some of the Iraqi staff in the editing suite were not happy about this.

“There were two schools of thoughts on the program. One that it was some of the best American music we have heard, and it would be good for the Iraqis to see some great music, and Americans enjoying themselves, sensitive musicians instead of grumpy checkpoint guards. The other side was that it was insensitive to broadcast Americans having fun on independence day where the Iraqi’s haven’t got theirs.” North wasn’t sure it was the right decision, but emphasized it was a collective one.

Room for improvement

The Iraq Media Assessment Report also found a host of other problems with the network.

“Hiring was ad hoc, and although consultant levels were high, post and experience levels were often not well matched. Equipment purchases were poorly planned, internet access was not established. Fierce internal rivalries emerged between projects with the network itself. Budgets were undefined and not devolved, restricting the ability of the staff to get on with the job. No serious professional training was offered, and program planning was non-existent. Hiring of local staff in Baghdad was not systematic, with very little pre-vetting for political links or professional capacity. Of the approximately 130 staff, of which around 25 are journalists, IMN officials estimated that more than 90 percent were former employees of the Ministry of Information.”

North is outraged at the report. He feels all the help and information he gave at the time of research has been presented in the worst possible light.

“They have shown the glass half empty when it is half full,” he said. He puts it down to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting wanting the IMN contract. He complains they should be helping instead of criticizing. The network has received no help from established television networks or institutes. They have been using old video tapes from Uday’s private collection without copyright to fill the time. North commented that if they had been given quality music entertainment they wouldn’t have had to screen the American Independence celebrations.

Other workers at the network put the problems down to the contractor, Science Applications International Co-operation and the original manager, Mike Furlong, who was fired in mid June. “Mike Furlong grabbed the contract with SAIC. He had some TV experience but not much. He was doing other stuff on the side so he was running away from meetings. He didn’t establish a professional-running TV station,” one worker said.

Mike Furlong was a colonel in the Special Forces, and has established transmitting and broadcasting in Kosovo and Bosnia. “He was very experienced” said North, “much more then others. It was just that the task was overwhelming for any individual to do with the resources we had.”

“We have a very limited technical capability,” Al-Rikaby said. “Very few cameras, short-life batteries. We have three editing suites. It’s not enough. We need all kinds of support,”

He also said there was a lack of furniture and office space. “It’s improving, but in early days we had reporters sitting and writing reports on colleagues backs.”

Another problem has been pay. The staff went on strike in last month because they had been promised payment on June 1st and simply hadn’t received it. John Sandrock, program manager, negotiated that they would be paid three days later. When they were paid it was on the old Ministry of Information wage scale, and the staff had been led to believe they were going to receive more. There was another sit-down and negotiations have apparently started. But while these negotiations are going on, IMN are losing their best staff to higher paid jobs in places such as the Red Cross, UN and USAID. The difference in salary is large. IMN pay their staff US$120 a month while other places are paying around US$600.

“For some reason CPA have said we must adhere to the old pay scheme. The type of people I’m training are in high demand in Baghdad by other areas of the CPA and NGOs, and they pay more. I lost my best news editor Bushra to a humanitarian organization. She had worked for ABC News and she loved journalism,” said North.

Dan Senor, in charge of CPA Public Affairs, has had a lot of involvement with the Network. Despite four phone calls and two emails he could not arrange a time to discuss the problems. With the influx of satellite many people are turning to established stations such as Abu-Dhabi and Al-Jezeera. Al-Rikaby understands that satellite channels are more popular, but he regards this as a motivation to create better programs.

“Competition leads to quality. In Britain everyone is free to buy a satellite dish but this hasn’t affected the position of the BBC. At the end of the day, none of these channels will give as much time to discuss the problems of the people of Iraq. I don’t think Al-Jeezera will have a one-hour program on electricity in Baghdad. I don’t think Abu Dhabi will have two hours on the water in Iraq. Despite all the difficulties, I believe that Iraqis are seeing for the first time television for the Iraqi people. TV today is the most powerful medium, if you have good TV people will watch it.”



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