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Towards Freedom TV, sponsored by the U.S. and U.K

LONDON—Saddam Hussein's old TV network in Iraq used to be, in the words of a television producer here, "all Saddam, all the time."

Now Saddam is gone to unknown places, earthly or otherwise, and his TV station is gone, too.

To fill the void, the U.S. and British governments have begun transmitting limited television to the Iraqi people—at least those whose sets still work.

Towards Freedom TV—the official name of the broadcast—was launched Wednesday and beamed into Iraq on the old frequencies used by Iraqi TV. The show comes from a transmitter aboard a C-130 transport plane aloft over Iraq.

The U.S. Department of Defense is producing four hours of Towards Freedom TV programming; it has not said a great deal about the content.

But the British satellite television company hired by the United Kingdom to produce an hourlong news show for the effort explains what the programming is—and is not—about.

"It's not about war! Don't mention the war!" said Daniel Rivkin, news editor of the London-based World Television Co. "The program is about freedom, OK?"

Instead of Saddam Hussein, two other leaders—President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair—dominated Wednesday's debut of Towards Freedom TV.

With their words subtitled in Arabic, both assured Iraqis that Saddam's regime was crumbling and that the future belonged to the Iraqi people.

"The government of Iraq, and the future of your country, will soon belong to you," said Bush, who recorded his appearance during a visit to Northern Ireland this week.

"I am glad to be able to speak to you today, and to tell you that Saddam Hussein's regime is crumbling," said Blair in his message. "The years of brutality, oppression and fear are coming to an end ... a new and better future beckons."

Hardly a candidate for an Emmy, the one-hour British part of the broadcast continued with a lot of talk—Blair speaking to Iraqi opposition leaders, public service announcements from the British government, reports on the Arab press and news reports read by Iraqi exile journalists.

Rivkin, 41, a can-do New Yorker and former Reuters wire service reporter, said he and World Television are determined to make the U.K. part of the broadcast livelier. He is planning musical segments, cultural reporting and perhaps even comedy.

"We're about information, but it has to be something people want to watch," he said Friday.

But don't look for standard television news reporting—or at least news reporting that focuses on the negative.

Civilian casualties during the war? "We'll do a little of that," Rivkin said.

War protest marches? "I don't think it's an interesting message."

What if Saddam shows up and makes a statement? Would his old frequency, now in coalition hands, let him appear? Rivkin had to think about it. "We'd have to. It would be such big news."

Editorial control is not totally in World Television's hands. The British foreign office, which is paying the company for 30 one-hour installments, ultimately can decide content.

In the United States, content disagreements are unlikely. The Pentagon is producing the segment.

Even the most tightly controlled programming on Towards Freedom TV is likely to outshine the product on old Saddam TV—hours and hours of speeches, appearances by Saddam and patriotic songs.

And the ultimate goal of Towards Freedom TV is not to flourish but to fade away. What the governments want, said Rivkin, "is for Iraqi TV to go back on the air—run by Iraqis."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.