Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Unfair, Unbalanced Channels

Despite U.S. efforts to promote journalistic standards in Iraq, sectarian divisions are bleeding over onto a dozen TV stations.
By Louise Roug, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
March 28, 2006

BAGHDAD — The Bush administration has poured millions of dollars into creating Western-style news media in Iraq, backing at least two television channels as well as training programs for Iraqi journalists on balance and ethics.

The effort has helped launch more than a dozen Iraqi channels. But the result is hardly what the administration set out to accomplish. Most of the channels are increasingly sectarian and often appear to be inflaming the country's tensions, critics say.

The result was highly visible Sunday and Monday as the state-owned Al Iraqiya station interrupted its regular schedule to broadcast nonstop footage of bloodied corpses at what it said was a Baghdad mosque.

U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed at least 16 people Sunday evening in what Americans said was a shootout with militants. On Al Iraqiya, the raid was portrayed as the killing of unarmed worshipers in a Shiite Muslim mosque. Between interviews with Shiite politicians criticizing the Americans, the camera lingered on the dead and the grieving relatives.

The channel was created by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority as an experiment in public broadcasting. It was later turned over to the Iraqi government, but is now widely viewed as sectarian.

"It was supposed to be fair, and address all the people of Iraq, but so far it hasn't succeeded in achieving this unique goal," said Mohammad Shaboot, editor of the state-run Al Sabah daily. "No one has invested in a real, nationwide Iraqi channel for all Iraqis."

Homebound because of violence and curfews, Iraqis watch their world through the kaleidoscope of satellite TV. But channel surfing Iraqi-style often offers views of the country through a sectarian lens.

Click the remote, and on one channel, the anchor refers to the Sunni-led insurgency as the "honorable resistance" as images of wounded Iraqis and aggressive U.S. soldiers flash on screen.

Click the remote again, and the insurgents are described as terrorists and the speakers praise crackdowns by the Shiite-led government.

Click again, and the insurgency might well not exist.

Until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the two governmentsanctioned channels offered only presidential propaganda and patriotic tunes.

The toppling of former President Saddam Hussein's regime, however, prompted a TV revolution and the launch of the more than a dozen Iraqi channels. They lure viewers with popular Iraqi-made dramas such as the Sopranos-style gangster show "Departures," the irreverent "Saturday Night Live"-like "Caricature" and a host of reality TV and makeover shows.

But while escapist entertainment flourished, news programming proved more problematic.

The coverage in the aftermath of the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, an attack that brought the country close to civil war, was particularly incendiary.

Channels with ties to Sunni Arabs such as Baghdad TV — headed by former Baath Party member Saad Bazzaz and run by the Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni political group — highlighted the suffering of Sunnis in reprisal attacks.

Stations run by Shiites, such as Al Furat and the government's Al Iraqiya, focused on the damage to the shrine and the suffering of Shiites under Hussein.

"Al Furat was pouring petrol on the fire, and Baghdad TV was doing the same thing on the other side," said Shaboot, the newspaper editor.

On Baghdad TV, Sunni studio hosts took calls from the audience, with some callers encouraging the audience to form a Sunni militia to counter the so-called Shiite militia.

Al Furat, backed by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq — the main Shiite political party — meanwhile was airing slogans demanding that Shiites stand up for their rights.

Al Iraqiya initially lacked credibility because of its American origins. Now some Shiites are critical of its Shiite focus and obsequious coverage of the Shiite-led government.

"When something happens in [Shiite-dominated] Karbala or Kadhimiya, we see that there is full coverage," said Ahmed Hussein, a 33-year-old Shiite businessman. "But when something happens in [the largely Sunni city of] Fallouja, there is not that much coverage, so we hear the Sunnis ask, 'Why?' "

Other channels are even more sectarian in their coverage.

On a recent day, amid kids' cartoons, Lebanese pop music videos and reruns of old Egyptian movies, a viewer could watch Al Furat's female news anchor, dressed in black hijab and abaya, introduce a speech by the leader of the largest Shiite party about Shiite families displaced by sectarian violence.

After the news, a montage showed worshipers kissing the walls of the Shiite holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala as a singer recited religious songs.

Meanwhile, on Baghdad TV, known as "Baathist TV" among some Shiites who criticize its pro-Sunni agenda, an Indonesian singer was wooing his audience from the stage, bathed in disco lights, followed by a corpulent host wearing a suit and a sky blue tie talking with a prominent Sunni cleric by phone. The program, "Under the Shadow of Sharia," dealt with questions about how to live according to religious edicts.

Farther along the spectrum, Al Rafidain showed a series of vox pop interviews. Everyone on the Arab street held the same view:

"The occupiers came to destroy us," said one man.

"The occupation cannot last," said another. "By the will of God, we will get rid of them."

On Baghdadia, a moderate Sunni channel, the anchor was delivering the top news of the day: "President Bush confesses that occupying Iraq is a very difficult task."

News directors across the political spectrum defend their own coverage while deriding their competitors as sectarian. Ahmed Rushdi, the news director of Baghdad TV, said that unlike state-controlled Al Iraqiya, his channel had no sectarian bias — even though it's backed by a major Sunni political group.

"We are always showing the facts as they are," he said.

Baghdad TV has no correspondents in either of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, which Rushdi chalked up to Baghdad TV's being "new in the business" and still recruiting journalists around the country.

Even sports coverage has a political bent.

"We concentrate on sport stars who were oppressed during Saddam's time," said Muhsin Fasani of Al Furat, which is aimed at religiously conservative Shiites.

On the U.S.-backed channel Al Hurra, or "the Free One," a television host in a crisp blue suit profiled a Syrian dissident. "An eye on democracy opens the eye on freedom," one guest said. The channel carries most speeches by Bush in addition to a youth-oriented mix of entertainment and news.

Despite U.S. efforts, many educated Iraqis now prefer the slick, well-funded Persian Gulf-based stations such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, often criticized by the U.S. government for being anti-American and pro-insurgency, because they focus on regional economic and environmental issues instead of just daily violence.

Hussein, the Shiite businessman, said he even preferred the Arabic-language version of the Discovery Channel to the Iraqi networks. "They like to analyze problems and find solutions."

While the Bush administration has been touting the proliferation of media outlets in the country as an example of newfound freedoms, some Iraqis are tuning out, exercising democracy by remote control.

"It's a luxury now to have different channels," Shaboot said. Iraqis "are hungry for it, but I'm not sure they are happy with it."

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