The Pentagon has awarded a $96 million contract to a U.S. communications equipment maker to run Saddam Hussein's old television and radio network, now called al-Iraqiya, for the next 12 months, the chairman of the company said last week.
Harris Corp., based in Melbourne, Fla., will operate the national newspaper formerly run by Hussein's son Uday, in addition to running the broadcast network, said Howard L. Lance, chairman of the company.
When Hussein's government fell in April, the state-run broadcast stations and newspaper were seized. In the months since, they have been run by a U.S. defense contractor, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).
Under SAIC direction, the stations have not drawn viewers and listeners because their content was considered too pro-United States. In addition, there has been turnover in the non-Iraqi management and turmoil within the Iraqi staff, many of whom were holdovers from the previous dispensation. The day before Hussein was captured last month, 30 Iraqi reporters and producers were fired, and al-Iraqiya did not get the news of his arrest on the air for almost 24 hours.
Lance said last week he and two partners hope soon "to have up and running a high-quality news and entertainment network."
The partners are the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. (LBC) and a Kuwaiti publishing and telecommunications company, Al-Fawares. Harris will manage the project and supply the equipment. LBC will be the source of the electronic programming and will conduct training.
Running the newspaper and training its journalists will be handled by Al-Fawares, which publishes a newspaper in Kuwait and prints Newsweek in Arabic.
Although the Pentagon contract runs for a year, there is some question about what will happen to the newspaper and stations -- collectively known as the Iraq Media Network (IMN) -- when the Coalition Provisional Authority turns over sovereignty to a new Iraq government, scheduled for July 1. Lance said last week he did not know what was going to happen, but he pledged to make the network a "high-quality" organization, whether it becomes state-run or remains under Pentagon control after July.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently voiced concern about the U.S. media program in Iraq and specifically about the IMN. He has told the White House he expects the State Department to take responsibility for supervising the IMN after July 1.
"We don't want U.S. taxpayers paying $100 million for some new Iraqi government over there to take over," Mark Helmke, a senior aide to Lugar on the committee, said last week. "The chairman wants to make sure that the new contract leads to an independent, free press."
Dorrance Smith, a former ABC News producer and an adviser to President Bush and President George H.W. Bush, works in Baghdad as a senior media adviser to the coalition authority. He recently added the IMN to his responsibilities, according to Washington and Baghdad government sources.
Smith's first job in Iraq was to create a 24-hour television feed for local U.S. television stations, bypassing the networks, which U.S. officials complained were emphasizing negative news from Iraq.
The former Hussein network is not the only Iraq media project being run by the U.S. government. The authorities, using money generated by Iraqi oil sales, are working to set up an FM radio station south of Baghdad within 30 days to compete with local religious broadcasters. It is the latest move in the broader, sometimes faltering, effort to present the viewpoints of the United States and the provisional authority.
The U.S. regional coordinator for south-central Iraq is looking for a contractor to build the station, to be housed in a religious university at Al Hillah. The FM outlet will provide "a means of promoting CPA aims and coalition information," along with "democratic education, vocational education . . . [and] public service broadcasting services," according to a request for proposals published recently. The CPA would "identify Iraqi personnel for training" at the station, the request said.
The proposed Al Hillah university station has drawn bids from companies in Cyprus, Sweden, Germany and the United States. It is not the only one planned in the region, which one official described as "a hotbed of Shia religious activity." There has been talk of possibly placing another one in the local women's center to give women a voice, a CPA official said
Meanwhile, the U.S. board that runs the Voice of America and Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language entertainment and news channel, is moving to set up land-based television broadcast stations in Baghdad and Basra. They will carry the programming of its new Middle East satellite channel, which is set to begin operating next month.
In its recent contract proposal, the Broadcasting Board of Governors said it is "particularly noteworthy that the urgent establishment of BBG TV broadcasting systems in Iraq is a top U.S. government priority." The board said it wants the Baghdad station running by the end of next month and the Basra station operating by March 22.
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