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Iraq: "Free Media" Run by Pentagon Contractor

by Walter PincusWashington Post
November 22nd, 2003

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that new media freedoms in Iraq are making the occupation harder for the U.S.-led authority, "but in the last analysis, I think the benefits vastly outweigh the burdens of it."

Speaking before a Pentagon town meeting yesterday, Rumsfeld said, "We've seen the free press abused in this country and other countries, and it's not a surprise that it can be abused there." He noted that the two most popular television satellite stations in Iraq, Dubai-based al-Arabiya and Qatar-based al-Jazeera, are "violently anti-coalition" and that "it will take some time to persuade people to watch different programming."

Rumsfeld's remarks came at a time when the Coalition Provisional Authority is seeking bids for a $100 million contract to run Iraq's former government-controlled television and radio networks and national newspaper, which used to be edited by Saddam Hussein's late son, Uday.

Now called the Iraq Media Network, the operation has come under criticism for carrying television and radio programming that features primarily occupation authority officials and announcements along with a weekly broadcast by L. Paul Bremer, head of the occupation authority.

"Many Iraqis and outside Arabs feel the coalition is an occupying force that does not serve Iraq's needs effectively, distrusts what the coalition says and relies on other media," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who has just returned from a two-week visit to Iraq. In a report on his trip, Cordesman said it was not clear that the media network was being fixed, but he noted, "Information operations are absolutely critical to U.S. success."

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Pentagon meeting that Bremer's media team had begun offering new programming "that we hope will attract the average Iraqi citizen's attention."

One communications expert familiar with the Iraq situation said yesterday that the occupation authority's television channel, run by Pentagon contractor Science International Applications Corp., will have changed its format three times by the end of the month. "Each time you change, you have trouble getting audiences back to sample it again," he said.

The U.S. Broadcast Board of Governors, which runs Voice of America and created Radio Sawa, a relatively new broadcasting effort in the Middle East, is also planning to establish a television presence in Iraq. It will air 12 hours of television programming out of Baghdad beginning early next year.

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