- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003

BAGHDAD — An American-backed Iraqi television channel aired its first live programming this weekend in an effort to provide an alternative to a highly successful anti-U.S. airwave assault by Iran.

“Now I have freedom in selecting and handling the subjects the way I like,” TV reporter Mahmoud Faud said. “Now we are able to criticize everybody — including the Americans.”

Mr. Faud is part of the 70-member staff of the Iraqi Media Network, the first new television station to reach the airwaves from Iraq since the April overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The new channel — part of a larger radio and television package costing the U.S. taxpayer $15 million for the first three months — airs twice, between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. daily.

The program begins by showing the Iraqi flag accompanied by the music of “My Homeland,” a popular patriotic song.

The newsroom is in a VIP lounge of the Conference Palace, now occupied by Iraq’s U.S.-led administration. When the tapes are ready, they are sent over to the al-Salhiya transmission tower across the street from the television station, which was demolished in coalition bombing raids.

Mr. Faud started working for Iraq’s state-controlled television three years ago, monitoring international satellite channels that ordinary Iraqis were not allowed to watch. He studied foreign broadcasts and learned how to structure a TV report and do interviews.

“It is the most exciting experience to be bringing my fellow Iraqis some of the truth,” said Wisam J. Majeed, one of the new station’s computer specialists who doubles as an engineer.

The station’s regular fare includes cartoons, Egyptian soap operas, performances by Iraqi folk singers, news and sports reports and man-in-the street interviews — usually complaining about the shortages in electricity and fuel and the lack of security in the Iraqi capital.

Don North, an official with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the civilian wing of the U.S. occupation force, said the television station’s equipment is ancient and difficult to integrate with the more modern, digital equipment provided by ORHA.

“Television here certainly isn’t all that glamorous, but this is making a huge mark in a country’s history,” he said.

Yesterday’s news that salaries might be paid soon led to traffic jams around the city. A half an hour of short news features also included reports on mass graves and a cleanup at a looted soccer stadium.

Zeinab Groosh, one of the television station’s new reporters, has no experience but is enthusiastic about bringing unfiltered news to her countrymen.

“I am really learning fast from my American cameraman just what makes a good package,” said Miss Groosh, 22, who was hired as a reporter when she applied to the coalition as a translator.

Yesterday, Miss Groosh spent the morning at the looted Ministry of Health, interviewing employees milling around in the courtyard waiting to receive their overdue salaries. Although plagued by poor equipment, Iraqis are committed to getting out the news.

“But it is very difficult working with equipment that jams the tapes every time our generator malfunctions,” Mr. Majeed said.

Iran launched its own news channel, Al Istiqama — “The Honesty” — directed at Iraqis as the war began. It has since strongly boosted its signal and also began a new Arabic language service, al Aalam— “The World.” Both broadcast only news and current affairs.

The entire Iranian television and radio network — employing 50,000 people — is controlled by the office of Iran’s hard-line Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who openly preaches a virulently anti-Western message.

The coalition yesterday announced plans to expand both television and radio services — initially to three hours of programming with one repeat. It also wants to set up a swap of material between its already advanced programming on medium wave radio in the southern city of Basra and its fledging radio studio in Baghdad.

“At this rate it will take them a long time to get anywhere near denting the Iranians’ virtual monopoly,” said Feras Nusir, senior producer of a leading Arabic channel.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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