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Unfair, Unbalanced Channels

Despite U.S. efforts to promote journalistic standards in Iraq, sectarian divisions are bleeding over onto a dozen TV stations.

March 28, 2006|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 31, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi TV: An article in Tuesday's Section A said that Baghdad TV was "headed by former Baath Party member Saad Bazzaz and run by the Iraqi Islamic Party." The television station is run by the Iraqi Islamic Party, but it is a second station, Al Sharqiya, that is headed by Bazzaz.

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.

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