BAGHDAD, Iraq—Banned under Saddam Hussein, satellite television was introduced to Iraqis last year as yet another freedom that comes courtesy of their liberators.
These days, however, scenes of U.S. Marine airstrikes, American prison guards abusing inmates and masked guerrillas delivering videotaped invitations to join the resistance play nonstop on Arabic-language satellite stations, which broadcast right into millions of Iraqi living rooms. This tool of democracy has turned into a public relations nightmare for the U.S.-led coalition, which has begun closely monitoring broadcasts and even censuring stations that authorities believe incite terrorism against Americans at a particularly volatile time in the occupation.
The two main channels, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya and its Qatar-based rival, Al-Jazeera, report increased pressure from the coalition to soften their often-grisly footage from Iraq. Even for many Iraqis, the coverage plays out like a reality show with a little too much reality. The most recent examples are exclusive live coverage of the Marines' bloody siege against insurgents in the flashpoint town of Fallujah and the disturbing photos of smiling American guards apparently forcing nude Iraqi detainees to perform sexual acts at Abu Ghraib prison.
"The biggest mistake the Americans made was allowing Iraqis to have satellite boxes," said Ahmed Mohamed, who owns a television production company in Baghdad. "During Saddam's time, there was no satellite, so he could do what he wanted and nobody ever knew. Now, even the little things the Americans do are played even bigger on Arabiya and Jazeera."
The coalition has tried to offer counterpoints by starting the U.S.-funded Arabic newspaper Al-Sabah and its own local TV station, Al-Iraqiyah. But Al-Sabah's editor and most of its staffers quit Monday, saying goodbye with a blistering front-page editorial "celebrating the end of a nightmare" under American control. The TV channel, run with a $96 million grant, airs just 40 minutes of news a day and is mocked for its devotion to home improvement and sports programs.
Without a credible Iraqi alternative, Mohamed said, the two pan-Arab stations are the best way for Iraqis to see the pipeline sabotage in the north, the bloody gun battles of the west, the car bombings in the central region and the militia standoffs in the south.
But the ad nauseam airing of the prison photos went too far, he complained.
"Iraqis are proud people, so seeing the photos of Abu Ghraib on TV humiliated us," Mohamed said.
"And let's not forget—everybody here has a weapon in his house," he added, suggesting they may feel a need to defend their honor by attacking Americans.
The coalition has stepped up the monitoring of Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, with teams of translators watching broadcasts and delivering summaries to occupation authorities. In the past month, some of the most powerful U.S. officials have blasted the stations' coverage.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called Al-Jazeera's reports "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was having "very intense discussions" with Qatari officials about reining in Al-Jazeera, which is financed mainly by the country's ruling family. And Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, ripped Al-Arabiya in a recent interview for suggesting that soldiers target Iraqi civilians.
The remarks were evidence of the enormous power that satellite channels have over Iraqi public opinion, despite the results of coalition-funded polls that play down their influence.
"Iraqis are attracted by the editorial production: 24 hours a day, correspondents in most cities and they are first with the news," said Gareth Bayley, a senior coalition spokesman in Baghdad. "But what they don't trust is that there is editorial balance."
At Al-Arabiya's Baghdad office, large posters hang on the walls in memorial of two of the station's correspondents, who were accidentally shot to death in March by U.S. soldiers during confusion at a checkpoint. Staff members said Tuesday that American troops detained an Al-Arabiya freelance cameraman twice this week and destroyed his tapes.
Hesham Badawy, the bureau's Egyptian news director, eagerly showed a visitor early plans for Tuesday's Iraq coverage: an update on the prison photo scandal, but also news of the coalition bridge-rebuilding project. He said the channel is under fire from the coalition, yet it's committed to presenting balanced broadcasts.
"We're carrying a very big responsibility, so we have to be more and more precise about the information we pass on to people," Badawy said. "The Americans know very well how we can influence the people. That's why they apply a little pressure from time to time."
For the most part, the behind-the-scenes politics of satellite television doesn't reach Iraqi viewers, who say they're hooked on news of their country's rapidly changing landscape. Even the poorest sections of Baghdad are dotted with satellite dishes, and some Arab reporters have achieved celebrity status.
"These reporters are risking their lives for us and doing their best to show us what's really going on," said Sayed Ali, a cloth merchant from Baghdad. "This freedom (the Americans) brought came back to bite them."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.