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2004-01-14

U.S. Journalist Quits Pentagon Iraqi Media Project Calling it U.S. Propaganda

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We talk to a longtime TV producer about the massive problems he saw in the new U.S.-funded Iraqi Media Network, which he said became an "irrelevant mouthpiece for Coalition Provisional Authority propaganda, managed news and mediocre programs." [includes transcript]

The U.S. has awarded a $96 million contract to a U.S. producer of communications equipment, Harris Corp., to create a U.S.-funded national media network in Iraq.

According to the head of Harris Corp, the Iraqi Media Network will have 30 TV and radio transmitters, three broadcast studios, and 12 bureaus around Iraq.

After U.S.-led troops ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in April, the state-run broadcasters were seized. Since then, they have been run by a U.S. defense contractor, Science Applications International Corporation.

Its efforts have come under criticism by many Iraqis, unsatisfied about its content.

We talk to a longtime TV producer, Don North, about the problems he saw in the starting of the network. He recently wrote an article for TelevisionWeek titled "Iraq Project Frustration: One Newsman’s Take On How Things Went Wrong"

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’ll talk to a long-time TV producer, Don North, about the problems he saw in starting the network. He recently wrote an article for "Television Week" entitled, Iraq Project Frustration. One Newsman’s Take on How Things Went Wrong." Don North joins us on the phone. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

DON NORTH: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You can tell us your story. When did you go to Iraq, who were you working for and what were you doing there?

DON NORTH: I first went to Iraq in February and joined my old buddies the 101st Airborne to go into Iraq with them and make a TV documentary. I had been with the 101st covering them as a journalist in Vietnam, it was great to be back with the 101st. After the fall of Baghdad, I was hired by S.A.I.C., Science Applications International, to help establish the Iraq Media Network, first radio and then television in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: what exactly did you do? How did you establish it?

DON NORTH: Well, we — within a few days of landing in Baghdad, we were broadcasting radio to the Iraqi nation out of attempt in Baghdad and — out of a tent in Baghdad. We were a small group of about oh, a dozen Americans, and Iraqi ex-pats who went in to do this. All of us experienced in various aspects of broadcasting and technical expertise, and we got radio going, and it was quite popular. The Iraqis obviously were happy to hear radio journalism that wasn’t state controlled or Ba’athist or Saddam controlled, and initially, we were quite welcomed. Within a few weeks, we got television running. We went on the air may 13th with television. But unfortunately — I mean, it’s been nine months now since we established radio and television, presumably an independent democratic media. The Iraqis need a new voice, and somehow we have got it all mixed up. The coalition provisional authority, ambassador Bremer’s organization, doesn’t seem to be able to differentiate between public diplomacy, in other words telling Iraqis and the world what we Americans are trying to do in Iraq, and giving the Iraqis a voice of independence that they need themselves. That’s been the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: You can tuck about — with you talk about who they chose to do the news? Who were the people who were creating it, and how much control did the U.S. Media have over the information and ultimately why you left?

DON NORTH: Well, I think the people that were hired by S.A.I.C., if I may say so, including myself, were highly experienced people. I have been a journalist since I was 21, covering the Vietnam war. I have recurrently been involved in training journalists, particularly television and radio journalists in Bosnia, in Afghanistan and in Romania, particularly countries that are emerging from a tyranny so, I think I have a sense of what it was the Iraqis needed after 35 years of controlled media. Our news director was a young Iraqi ex-pat, Achmed Al-Rikabi, who had grown up in Sweden. And was a producer and reporter for Swedish television. He broadcast for the B.B.C. And he broadcast for the Free Iraq Radio. He was well respected by the Iraqis. But we immediately started clashing with coalition provisional authorities, who wanted control — they just couldn’t resist controlling the message. Unfortunately, they turned what should have been an independent voice for Iraqis — this was our aim, to sort of make a PBS, a public broadcast radio and TV for the Iraqis. But instead, it just became a mouthpiece for the coalition, and the Iraqis didn’t find it credible. They just thought of it as another voice of America, and turned to other satellite broadcasters like Al-Jazeera and Al-Alabira, Arabic stations broadcasting into Iraq. Those are the stations they’re watching and not the station that was created for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Don North, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We had a military wife on, who was describing her husband working with the Iraqi media as well. And he was saying that the Iraqis there were bristling under the U.S. Control was saying — was calling the U.S. people in charge "Little Saddams"

DON NORTH: Oh, dear. Well, it’s unfortunate. I mean, with all of the best intentions, we are trying to bring democracy to Iraq in a way and in a way, we are imposing democracy, and a free and independent media is the bullwork, the cornerstone of any democracy. But somehow, even though we are — ourselves are have created and have established a marvelous democracy of our own, we don’t seem to be able to transfer this and export this to people who are hungry for it and really want it like the Iraqis.

AMY GOODMAN: Don North, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Don North has written a piece in "Television Week" about the Iraqi media called "Iraq — Project Frustration. One Newsman’s Take on How Things Went Wrong."

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