Iraqis Unhappy With U.S. Signals

From the archive (legacy material)

Peter Slevin | Washington Post | 26 May 2003

BAGHDAD — Putting Iraqi television back on the air has proved to be no simple matter, from the electrical outages to the makeshift staff assembled in the postwar chaos. Telephones do not work, and news is hard to confirm. And then there is the dispute over the editorial influence of U.S. occupation authorities.
The U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Margaret Tutwiler, was dispatched to Baghdad to polish and package the U.S. occupation. But she triggered a rebellion earlier this month when she and a young White House aide in Baghdad, Dan Senor, intervened with strong judgments about programs and said that broadcasts would be reviewed in advance by the wife of a prominent Kurdish militia leader, according to several people involved.
Iraqis and U.S.-paid television consultants called it censorship. They protested that the supervision by Tutwiler and Senor violated the concepts of liberty and independence that President Bush said would undergird Iraq’s future. Most of all, they objected to the idea that the Americans thought they knew what was best for Iraqi viewers.
“Dependence on any governmental body, whether it is Iraqi or non-Iraqi, will lead to another dictatorship and will kill democracy,” said Ahmad Rikabi, 33, a foreign-born Iraqi recruited from exile to become a network anchor. “If we really want democracy, we should protect this child that is the Iraqi media.”
The station is now broadcasting news and documentary pieces. The tempest, at least for the time being, has died down. But the enduring tension over control reflects the network’s importance in a country where national television was an instrument of the state for decades before Saddam Hussein was pushed from power by allied troops. In the aftermath of the government’s collapse, nothing has arisen to take its place, due to the wartime destruction of broadcasting towers and subsequent looting of production facilities.
A foreign official in the U.S. occupation authority said he thinks Tutwiler relied too heavily on Hero Talabani — wife of Jalal Talabani, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — who “has convinced them all that she is the great arbiter of Iraqi taste.” Instead of promoting an Iraqi-run program, the official said, Tutwiler and Senor are “effectively acting like the station manager and the news director.”
The two Americans opposed Rikabi as anchor and objected to the reading of verses from the Koran, staffers and advisers said. Then there was the time that Senor voiced the opinion that an inexperienced staff member was unprepared to interview the new U.S. reconstruction chief, L. Paul Bremer III. So Senor posed the questions himself as the camera rolled, a reconstruction official said.
“If Dan Rather didn’t show up for an interview with George Bush,” the official asked, “would Ari Fleischer conduct the interview?”
A U.S. adviser said “it was not a good idea” to allow Hero Talabani to screen the broadcast, given that her husband has long fought and maneuvered for Kurdish independence from Baghdad’s Arab-controlled government. “You can’t go to a person who has a known political agenda,” he said. “There were lots of people who said this was not a good idea.”
But the adviser said in Tutwiler’s defense that her goal was to make the U.S.-funded program “more professional” at a time when Iraqis remain uncertain about the U.S. occupation and the country’s future. Talabani was to “provide a quick check to see whether the tone was right,” he said. When many people objected, “the idea was kiboshed.”
A senior Kurdish official said that Tutwiler visited the Talabanis’ elegant rented house in Baghdad several times and that Senor spoke with her frequently by telephone. “It’s not censorship; it’s advice,” said the official, who said he believed that the Americans needed Talabani’s help. “The problem with the coalition is they think like a coalition, not like Iraqis.”
An occupation authority official said that Talabani was one of “many Iraqis familiar with the media” consulted by U.S. advisers responsible for starting the station. The official said the authority is consulted about programming before it airs but does not review specific pieces in advance.
Tutwiler has returned to Morocco. Senor said, however, that the U.S. authorities have clear goals.
“This is the first time in decades that the Iraqi people have been able to turn on the TV and not be subjected to Saddam Hussein-controlled media,” Senor said. “Our priority is to build out infrastructure, develop broadcasting capabilities and develop systems so a free and robust media can flourish in Iraq.”
To the consternation of network staffers, holdovers from the Hussein era have tested producers’ nerves by making their own editorial choices at the remote transmission site, at one point putting the station’s prewar logo on the postwar broadcast.
On a recent evening, the team raced to piece together two hours of news and features against a deadline imposed by a scheduled electrical outage. It was the day Senor interviewed Bremer. When the power went out early, one Iraqi journalist cracked, “Beautiful. Tell Bremer to give us some electricity to put his statement on the air.”
Two weeks earlier, the station’s satellite dish burned out. The staff borrowed one from the BBC, but it overheated. As a production team was broadcasting the country’s first postwar soccer match, someone purposely cut an expensive cable. Technical problems have limited the broadcast range to roughly a 75-mile radius of Baghdad.
The equipment is so old that “some of it ought to be in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It’s that old,” said an adviser, who like several others asked not to be identified by name for fear of alienating Tutwiler or influential members of Bremer’s staff. “It will not be a professional news show yet, but we hope it will be a here-are-the-facts-ma’am show that people can have some trust in.”
Even before the dispute over editorial influence, everyone agreed that credibility was the goal. But they differed greatly about how to achieve it.
On one side were the Iraqis and most of their international advisers. On the other was, most prominently, Tutwiler, a veteran Washington image-maker who has been asked to run the State Department’s office of public diplomacy.
At the peak of the dispute, one well-placed reconstruction agency adviser marveled that Tutwiler and Senor had achieved “what the White House has been dreaming of for years . . . controlling the evening news.” With a measure of admiration mixed with his dismay, he called Tutwiler a “one-woman psychological operations team.”
Tutwiler — with the concurrence of Bremer and Talabani, staffers said — thought it would be a mistake to allow Rikabi to anchor the broadcast, fearing that he would be perceived as a U.S.-imposed outsider. Rikabi was born to Iraqi expatriates in Prague in 1969. He spent seven years in Swedish radio and became London bureau chief of Radio Free Iraq, but he never lived in Iraq.
The network’s staff and the international advisers favored Rikabi, who they felt had paid his dues by spending most of his young life opposing Hussein’s government, albeit at a distance. Rikabi and his supporters asked what the alternative was — someone from Iraq’s co-opted television past teaching Iraqis about broadcasting freedom?
That dispute was one in a series that angered the Iraqi staff members and some of their foreign advisers. Others involved the Koran, Talabani and a series of man-in-the-street interviews deemed overly critical of the U.S. occupiers. They were held pending on-air replies from the reconstruction team.
According to Don North, a Fairfax resident who is an adviser to the television station and formerly worked for NBC and ABC, the Iraqi staff had held an intensive debate about the Koran, with some saying that the broadcast “must absolutely have readings of the Koran” and others that religion and newscast credibility cannot mix. The staff agreed to a series of limited readings.
“These are all Iraqi decisions,” North said. “This is the last thing I want to do, tell them whether they can have their Koran or not.”
But Americans at the reconstruction agency said no to the readings. At about the same time, the staff and advisers learned that Hero Talabani was being consulted by Tutwiler and had been invited to review the programs in advance. They threatened to walk out and leaked word to the international news media.
Tutwiler & Co. compromised. The parties agreed that Rikabi would stay off the air the first week, that the station would look for additional personalities and that the early programs would be treated as pilots. The Koran would be read, as the station staff preferred. Talabani could offer advice but would not see scripts or tapes in advance. And Senor, several people said, promised no censorship.
Correspondent Scott Wilson in Baghdad contributed to this report.