U.S. ‘News’


Last week Jessica Lynch, the daily bloodshed in Iraq, and George Bush’s odes to freedom all but drowned out an important debate: how to create a free press in Iraq. After all, the First Amendment is one of our bedrock principles and without an informed citizenry, any pretense of democracy in the Mideast will fail. But so far, it seems the Pentagon has decided to spend the Iraqis’ media budget on one very polished, tightly controlled center for “public diplomacy,” rather than on a diverse chain of independent news centers. Critics say that’s no way to introduce the value of free speech.

In October, the Pentagon began soliciting bids for a $100 million renewable contract to run the Iraqi Media Network (IMN). The project is overseen by the U.S. military occupation (a/k/a Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA) and is rising out of the infrastructure of Saddam Hussein’s state-run news network. The dream is for IMN to become a “world-class” media operation, including a 24-7 satellite channel, two land-based TV channels, two radio channels, a national newspaper, and TV and film studios in every major region of Iraq. To top it off, this producers’ utopia is expected to provide “comprehensive, accurate, fair, and balanced news,” instill a “code of ethics” in Iraqi journalists, and line up its own funding by the end of 2004.

Skeptics doubt IMN will be self-supporting in a year, given the highly competitive market for satellite TV in the Mideast, let alone the daunting security issues. But the Pentagon’s call for bids is sanguine, suggesting as possible revenue sources “advertising sales, sponsorships, grants, international consortia, subscriptions, and foundations,” provided that none of the above tarnish the network’s objectivity. For now, IMN’s $100 million budget, which is part of the $87.5 billion appropriation signed into law last week, comes from Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, a division of the Defense Department that handles psy-ops.

And that’s only one crack in the network’s credibility. Critics say the network’s mission is weakened by its contradictory goals. So far IMN is touted as both the voice of an occupying military force and an inspiration for Iraqis to produce fair and balanced news coverage. But many Iraqis have already dubbed the network a propaganda organ. (As if to underscore that impression, IMN recently ran a speech by CPA administrator Paul Bremer in which he spoke repeatedly of Hussein as “the evil one.”) A recent poll found that 35 percent of Iraqis now have satellite receivers, and of those, 67 percent prefer to get TV news from the satellite channels Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, rather than from IMN. (In recent weeks, The Washington Post has followed this story closely.)

It seems that Iraqi citizens associate a centralized media network with the Hussein regime, under which dissenting journalists were often imprisoned or killed. According to a source who was recently in Iraq, Iraqis had looked forward to getting fair and balanced news from the U.S., but now view the network with “the same distrustful eye they regarded it with during the Hussein era—same TV, different autocratic rulers.”

IMN’s propagandistic tone has also alienated some potential government contractors—the community of NGOs with experience setting up independent media centers in places like Bosnia, Afghanistan, and East Timor. These groups are used to contracting with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. But, one source explained, some NGOs now see IMN as “too close to the U.S. government and too akin to public diplomacy, rather than independent media.” Some NGOs have not decided if they will bid for the IMN contract; others have dropped out altogether. Two D.C.-based media development groups, Internews and IREX, declined to comment.

This marks the first time the Pentagon has solicited bids to run the Iraqi TV network. The first two contracts, for 2003, went to Science Applications International Corp, a major Defense Department contractor. SAIC has no experience in media development, but the company is known for its work with the Special Forces and was tapped to run security operations for the 2004 Olympics. (One SAIC project includes building a command center in Athens where police can monitor thousands of surveillance cameras, which might count as broadcast experience.)

With bids due at the end of November, a handful of interested parties turned up in Baghdad last week for a tour of IMN facilities. Of about two dozen potential bidders, the following are among those said to be still in play: the BBC, through its World Service Trust; the British TV channel ITN; the Rendon Group, which has helped the U.S. with previous “public diplomacy” efforts; the Harris Group; and the Lebanese Broadcasting Company. Two sources speculate that the Pentagon is likely to stick with SAIC.

Senator Richard Lugar, who is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), is developing a plan that would shift responsibility for the IMN to the State Department in hopes of making the project more attractive to NGOs. “To have Iraq be a democratically run country requires various institutions that make democracy work,” said SFRC senior staffer Mark Helmke. “A free, fair media is essential to the process. That’s something we know how to do, and that we’re not using groups that have done this before is counterproductive.”

Aside from the technical and security issues, other challenges for Iraqi media moguls include programming, staffing, and censorship. Last June, Bremer issued an order prohibiting Iraqis from publishing or broadcasting anything that could be construed as an “incitement to violence,” and in recent weeks, the CPA has restricted news coverage of hospitals, morgues, and hotel bombings. Rather than producing original content, IMN has broadcast endless CPA press conferences and old programming from the Mid-East Broadcast Corporation. Just before Ramadan, the IMN feed went up on satellite. But with dozens of local newspapers and competing satellite channels, it’s unclear what the IMN will offer that Iraqis can’t get elsewhere—or if future IMN news anchors will sound more like Ted Koppel or Baghdad Bob.

In the past six months, IMN has seen professional journalists come and go. The original news director, Arab expat Ahmad Al Rikabi, resigned in August, citing poor funding and a lack of editorial independence. His successor, George Mansour, is said to have been removed last week. The current news director is a former CNN executive editor, Ted Iliff.

Numerous attempts to obtain comment from the Pentagon, beginning days before this article went to press, were ignored by media handlers in the U.S. and Iraq. Gary Thatcher, a former journalist who is now the spokesman for the CPA and responsible for development of the IMN, did not respond to messages left with two colleagues or to a detailed e-mail. So much for a free and open debate.