For the past few weeks, Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer has appeared every Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. on IMN, the Pentagon-run television network, with a taped message to the Iraqi people about what is going on in their country. The speeches, dubbed in Arabic, are much like President Bush’s weekly Saturday radio address, according to Gary Thatcher, the former CBS producer who is head of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. “We are here to set an example of journalism in the Western tradition,” he said.
To many Iraqis, though, Bremer’s prime-time addresses are more reminiscent of the regular television appearances of former president Saddam Hussein, according to both American and Iraqi media specialists who have studied IMN, the Iraqi Media Network. Iraqis see the station not as a vehicle for free speech but “as the mouthpiece of the CPA,” the BBC World Service Trust reported after studying the stations this summer.
Bremer’s regular appearances on Iraqi Media Network, an offshoot of Rumsfeld’s ideology machine, look just like Saddam’s weekly presidential address.
In last week’s address just before the holy month of Ramadan, Bremer repeatedly referred to Hussein as “the evil one.” “You must not lose hope, because you have seen the evil one go,” Bremer said at one point. “You, the Iraqi people, whom the evil one was bound to protect, he instead tortured, he instead murdered. You, the Iraqi people, whom the evil one was bound to feed, he instead starved.”
Flynt L. Leverett, a former CIA Middle East counterterrorism analyst who served on the Bush National Security Council and is now at the Brookings Institution, said: “He is using religious and cultural symbolism, but it is an obvious resort to propaganda. It is not inappropriate, there is a war going on, but he is doing it in so obvious a way.” That view - that IMN is a vehicle for propaganda - is one of many ironies in the USA-led coalition’s attempt to create a free, Iraqi media operation out of the rubble of Hussein’s defunct Ministry of Information.
The fledgling IMN has taken over Hussein’s 18 television stations, his government radio stations and al-Sabah, the 60,000-circulation national newspaper now published on what was the same site of the newspaper founded by Hussein’s son Uday. Since this spring, management has been contracted out to Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a San Diego-based defence contractor with a $40 million-plus budget and no experience in media development. SAIC, in turn, has been overseen in Washington by the Defence Department’s office that specialises in psychological warfare operations, or psyops.
Lately, IMN is known as “psyops on steroids” in parts of the Pentagon, because there is an additional $100 million in the Iraq supplemental appropriation bill before Congress to pay the winner of a new contract, beginning in January, to create a “world-class” media operation. Twenty-three bidders, including SAIC, and some USA and foreign journalistic organizations are to meet in Baghdad next month to discuss plans for turning the enterprise around.
At the heart of its difficulties is that IMN is supposed to promote USA goals and provide an alternative to often critical Arab-world media while evolving into Iraq’s version of a free press. “They need psyops to get their message across and at the same time allegedly want to create an indigenous, independent media … goals that are counterintuitive,” said a senior congressional aide familiar with the program.
The tools used to accomplish these goals reflect the paradox: The New York advertising agency J. Walter Thompson is designing a new logo, graphics and programming schedule for a network whose staff and even broadcast frequencies are much the same as they were under Hussein. “IMN is a big source of announcements of services and curfews by CPA,” said one Iraqi working with a British team training journalists outside Baghdad. “But it is manned by many of the old Iraqi Information Ministry who have the mentality … of the past.”
Charles Heatly, a British citizen who is the CPA spokesman for IMN, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad: “There has always been a debate because our two aims are conflicting. But we are very slowly going to develop into an independent voice to be seen and liked.”
Al-Jazeera has defied Arab and non-Arab governments by covering the war with a standard of objectivity entirely missing from the BBC and CNN, not to mention Rupert Murdoch’s Fox and Sky news channels.
IMN needs to move quickly if it wants to counter critical coverage of USA and coalition efforts by the Arabic-language satellite channels of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. About 35 percent of Iraqi homes have satellite receivers, which were banned during Hussein’s rule, but that number is growing rapidly. A recent poll showed that Iraqis who can get satellite television choose the Arab stations over IMN by more than 2 to 1. Meanwhile, Iran has built a powerful television transmitter on the Iran-Iraq border, and its al-Alam channel can now be received in Baghdad.
In a telephone interview from Iraq’s capital, Thatcher said IMN’s news operation is being directed by a former CNN International executive editor, and pointed to USA-style practices: “We give [IMN crews] special access” to CPA news conferences, he said, “but don’t tell them how to cover it.” And he said members of the USA-appointed Iraq Governing Council - all of whom are potential candidates whenever elections may be held - have been warned “that it is not appropriate for them to control” political coverage. He also said, “The Pentagon as an institution has never attempted to influence content since I have been here.”
Others who have studied the situation say Thatcher’s operation has begun to exercise more control over what IMN’s 18 local stations can broadcast. The central network broadcasts 18 hours of feed a day, including a two-hour news block. Only 30 minutes is cut out for local news coverage, and all programming has to be approved in Baghdad.
Even in Mosul, where the local station has been operated under the watchful eye of Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, the Baghdad office has sent IMN technicians to improve the signal between Baghdad and Mosul and kept two on the scene to make certain that more network material is carried over the station.
In Afghanistan, in contrast, money both from the USA Agency for International Development and from non-profit organizations has been used to develop local stations outside the central government’s control, according to David Hoffman, president of Internews Network, an international non-profit organization that has helped develop open media in 45 countries since 1992. The IMN situation is “the worst mess I have ever seen in my life,” Hoffman said.
Thatcher agreed that the local stations had to take the network feed from Baghdad but that he was encouraging local stations to develop programming and pre-empt when reasonable. But, he added, “there ought to be one channel where Iraqis can find out what is going on with national reach, and that’s IMN.
Article courtesy of the Washington Post