Thursday, November 13, 2003

Iraqis and the Media

Alaa made some interesting observations last Saturday on the urgency of setting up an independent, objective, and neutral Iraqi news station. CPA and the GC have failed to do so till now, for what stupid reasons I cannot fathom. There is a local coalition backed amateurish tv station called IMN (Iraqi Media Network) which started broadcasting about a month after the war, it has supposedly been upgraded lately and renamed Al-Iraqiyah. Iraqis use it mainly for entertainment, to follow football matches, Egyptian serials, Arabic music video clips, and late night movies but NEVER for their daily news. They prefer Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiyah for that largely due to the apparent professional style of these stations.

But of course not every Iraqi here owns a satellite receiver, so the majority of Iraqis get their news from radio stations. For years now we have been accustomed to listening to the arabic editions of BBC, Voice of America, Radio Monte Carlo, Kuwait, Iran, and Iraqi opposition stations. We can now get these stations on FM for the first time in years. There is also a local coalition radio station, its news aren't very different from the IMN's, they both give a feeling of propaganda rather than balanced news. In addition to IMN there is a Kurdish station from Suleimaniyah, 'Al-Huriya' or Freedom Channel, and 'Ashur' an Assyrian language channel which I really haven't been able to receive on my tv. Both are similarly awful.

A little history. Before April 9 we had Uday's infamous 'telvizion Al-Shabab', Youth TV. Hailed by some humorous Iraqis as the world's best channel, seemingly because it displayed the latest pirated box office movies at the same time they were being shown in US theaters. It ripped off all the exclusive Egyptian tv shows from other Arab satellite channels. Its 9 o'clock news featured footages from every known news station in the world, scientific reports and documentaries from Discovey channel, sports and live matches, music clips requests, a special cartoon period for children. In other words it was a channel for everything and everyone. Even Saddam once addressed the Iraqis "What do you need satellite receivers for when you have telvision Al-Shabab?". Along that, there was the Iraqi Channel One, the oldest in Iraq which older generations followed, and the Iraqi Satellite Channel which people rarely ever watched but Iraqi expatriates were fond about. And another Sports channel which came and went. What bothered most about these stations was the incessant praising of the 'The leader, the neccessity', or when there was a speech or any stupid event or meeting related to Saddam. All stations would broadcast the event suddenly at once in the middle of a crucial football game, favorite program, or whatever you were watching. You would have to endure the face and voice of the despised tyrant and his goons for a couple of hours, only for the event to be replayed at the next news hour for another two or three hours, this might go on the next day as well. The last few months before the war, he had a meeting every day, so tv was literally unwatchable.

Back in those days, if you wanted to use a satellite receiver, you should purchase the smallest dish available, and hide it ingeniously. No use setting it on the roof, you would always have neighbours or local party members who would rat on you. The punishment was a six month jail and 400,000 Dinar fine. My uncle next door hid his dish in the backyard in some sort of cage covered with a thin sheet of linen. We experienced two raids looking for satellites in the last ten years, the last time 3 years ago, I got my aunt to distract the party members at the door while I went back and with amazing speed disassembled the dish and hurled it into our neighbours backyard. My grandmother took the receiver, cables and the remote control to bed under her blankets and feigned sleep. The guys searched and searched with no luck and left afterwards. In the first raid some nine years ago we weren't so fortunate. We did hide the receiver, but the dish was huge so they found it easily mainly because we were stupid enough to put it on the roof. My uncle had to bribe the security guys to avoid jail. But it was really worth the risk, to get a small glimpse of the outside world.

Ironically enough, you can find a dish on every roof in Baghdad now, just look what deprivation can do to people. Receivers are sold on nearly every block in town. About a million pieces were sold the last few months.

Anyway, the Iraqi Satellite channel is still off the air for unexplained reasons. I imagine seven months were enough for any kind of effort to get it going again. I have been reading about a new Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) for two months, and its probably the same one that guy on Alaa's blog was talking about. I truly hope it won't be anything like the IMN. An Iraqi news channel to counter the lies of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah. Which would interview everyday people and influential Iraqis for their voice to reach the rest of the world. The silence is killing me!