A controversial Department of Defense contract valued at $98 million is due to be awarded shortly to rebuild and operate Arabic-language TV stations and a media network in Iraq. Since its launch earlier this year the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) has been the subject of intense criticism for failing to create a credible media outlet.
Simultaneously, the launch of a new Arabic-language satellite service by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. nonmilitary international broadcasting (including the Voice of America), has been pushed back a month to the end of January, and the board will now spin off a new land-based news and information TV network in Iraq. The new Middle East Network (MEN), with more than $100 million in U.S. funding, will resemble CNN, MSNBC and the Discovery Channel in terms oflook and programming.
"We will be on two fronts," said Norman J. Pattiz, chairman of Westwood One, a member of the BBG and chairman of its Middle East committee. "We will be on satellite across the Middle East, but will also provide a targeted product that will be available terrestrially only within Iraq, which will focus on Iraq."
Both efforts come after the United States stumbled badly in its initial effort to use mass media to win the hearts and minds of Iraqi citizens following the U.S.-led coalition's invasion earlier this year. At a time when explosion of local Iraqi TV stations have gone on-air en masse and citizens have rushed to acquire satellite dishes to take in dozens of existing Arabic-language channels, the Defense Department's IMN station IMN, has failed to win a wide audience or to establish much credibility, despite expenditures so far of more than $24 million.
Many of the problems are addressed in a companion article by Don North (See separate story.) His account echoes media reports in the United States and Europe. The Washington Post, for instance, said in a Dec. 1 editorial: "The coalition's own attempts to broadcast news and information have been woefully deficient. Although it controls Iraq's main broadcast channel, two domestic radio stations, and a major newspaper, the [Coalition Provisional] Authority and its American contractors have failed to capture the Iraqi audience-news programs, in particular, smack of sanitization."
The contract to operate IMN is currently held by Science Applications International Corp., a major defense contractor in the Washington area with little previous broadcasting experience. Now SAIC is apparently also a bidder for the new contract, which is scheduled to take effect in January.
Kathy Dobeck, the Pentagon's liaison for the contract, declined to reveal which companies have applied or to give any other details. SAIC spokesman Ron Zollars declined to say whether SAIC has reapplied. But a source close to the issue said SAIC is once again a bidder, and that several other companies have submitted proposals as well.
One of those is WorldSpace Corp., a global satellite radio company that said in a statement last week that it hopes to serve as the general contractor for a new effort. One of its nine partners is East-West News Service, which was involved with rebuilding news operations in Bosnia.
Other WorldSpace partners include TFS Group, The Rendon Group, Oracle Surveillance and Harris Corp.'s Broadcast Communications Division.
"WorldSpace has hand-picked the most qualified and experienced group of companies to bid on the Iraqi Media Network contract," said Noah Samara, WorldSpace CEO. "We are confident in our proposal, knowing that WorldSpace and its partners have the talent and technology to begin the staggering task of rebuilding a critical communications outlet for the Iraqi people."
In addition, a source said WorldSpace's bid for the job is in the "mid-80 [millions]," and that a Pentagon decision is expected soon. SAIC's Mr. Zollar declined comment on the criticisms about the Iraqi network's operation.
But Maj. Joe Yoswa, a Pentagon spokesman, said the network is only in its initial stages, and bringing it up to Western standards "doesn't happen overnight."
"It's not NBC," Maj. Yoswa said. "That's the reality of where they are, and they'll move past that as their experience and capabilities improve."
Despite some snafus, a Pentagon source said recent surveys in Iraq have shown that the Iraqi Media Network's credibility with the Iraqi people is growing. "They trust the media network," the source insisted.
In its pitch for bids for the contract, the Pentagon, on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said CPA's goal is to "bequeath to the nation of Iraq and its people a world-class radio and television network, and an equally world-class national newspaper." In addition, the Pentagon said the goal is to establish the media institutions by the end of 2004.
The new Middle East Network, serving 22 countries, and its Iraqi terrestrial channel are being created by professional broadcasters. MEN, based in Springfield, Va., will initially broadcast 12 to 15 hours a day. It will have a broadcast center in Dubai and news bureaus in Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Baghdad, Iraq; and Jerusalem. It has an arrangement to use the resources and video footage of the Associated Press from the region and around the world.
"We are going to put out a product that won't look like government television," said Mr. Pattiz, who expects it to immediately be the largest Arabic-language news operation in the world. "We're going to put out a product that will be superior to what they can get in the region. Our product will be sampled because of who we are. The challenge is to make sure that the product is good when we go on the air, not because of who we are but because of the way information is presented."
The Board of Governors, which oversees MEN, also oversees Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Marti. It is made up of private citizens such as Mr. Pattiz, as well as the U.S. Secretary of State, so it is viewed by some in Washington as the State Department service. The IMN is controlled by the Department of Defense.
Mr. Pattiz and the BBG are also involved in Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language music and entertainment radio service in the region that has become very popular, especially with the youth audience. It often tops audience-rating surveys in the countries it serves.
The Congress initially voted $30 million for the MEN effort, later added a supplement of $32 million, then more recently approved another $40 million, for a total of $102 million for the coming year.
Among those already actively working on MEN, according to Mr. Pattiz, are Ferrel Meisel, a broadcast veteran with experience both in the United States and overseas, including Turkey and Singapore; and Burt Kleinman, another U.S. broadcast veteran and a journalist with international experience, who is acting president.
"What we are attempting to do is build an indigenous broadcast operation that will eventually be turned over to the Iraqis," Mr. Pattiz said. "We believe that to build something of lasting value and to train others, you ought to know what you are doing to begin with.
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