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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 17:00 GMT
Iraq's television revolution
By David Lomax
Correspondent, BBC Newsnight

Character from a popular Iraqi TV soap
Soap operas and comedies are popular with Iraqi viewers
One of the ironies of the new Iraq is that the man who once controlled the media can't watch the television which his fellow countrymen - assuming that they have electricity - now enjoy.

Saddam Hussein, who exempted himself and his ministers from his own ban on satellite TV, has now been banned from having a set in his cell.

The great dictator can't savour, for instance, Modern Day Pashas, a soap opera that goes out on the Al-Sharqiya channel for an hour every afternoon in Baghdad. It's a satire with heavy pantomime overtones in which corruption is pilloried with exuberant knockabout.

Or perhaps Saddam might have preferred to watch the astrologer taking calls from Iraqis who are seeking advice about important decisions or events in their lives. "No, I'm afraid that the planets will not help. You must work hard for your examination."

In a country where there are so many dangers and difficulties there is an understandable appetite for any kind of escapism
Like much of this channel's output the programme is generated from the safety of media City in Dubai. The distance leaves a strange gap and echo on telephone calls but this is obviously something to which viewers have adjusted.

The channel, which uses sophisticated graphics and pop videos, has built an enthusiastic following. There are new lifestyle programmes like Labour and Materials, a format which has clearly been imported from the West and has a strong Iraqi flavour.

Characters from an Iraqi satire show
An Iraqi television satire features child kidnappers holding adults to ransom
The channel interviews families who have suffered during the war and lost their houses. It chooses one case, pays for the rebuilding of the home and makes a series about it. In a country where there are so many dangers and difficulties there is an understandable appetite for any kind of escapism.

It's also a cheap way of filling airtime.

Satire

Another popular show is the Caricatura programme. Its satires about police trying to bribe drivers or of children kidnapping adults and demanding ransoms, are widely enjoyed.

I thought this country was hungry for food but they were hungry for television
Iraqi sociologist
They certainly make a change from endless military parades.

No longer are there sequences of the great man letting off his shotgun into the air, reviewing military parades or kissing babies. "We might as well have stuck a picture of him on the outside of the screen and not bothered to switch the set on," was a popular jibe.

When Saddam fell there was a sudden mushrooming of demand for television sets, decoders and satellite dishes. Banned under Saddam's rule, or at least only available to senior Baathists, these were bought as fast as they could be imported at $350 a time.

Satellite dishes on Iraqi rooftops
There has been a massive uptake of satellite television in Iraq
Entrepreneurs made millions as new dishes sprang up on apartment blocks. 7 million were sold in less than a year. "I thought this country was hungry for food," one Iraqi sociologist told me, "but they were hungry for television."

The biggest change in what viewers could watch during the war was the growth of Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, both fiercely critical of the Americans and the channels chosen by the insurgents for their uncompromising messages.

Iraqi conservatives alarmed

President Bush in his State of the Union address promised to try to correct what the US saw as the excesses of the media hostile to the coalition. Millions of dollars were poured into various new channels in an attempt to counterbalance the sort of coverage viewers were exposed to.

But many Iraqis seem to have ignored the new output from Virginia. They have turned off because Al Iraqiya is seen as either too American or containing too many bought-in shows from Cairo and Beirut instead of the all Iraqi offerings of the new Al-Sharqiya channel.

Non-stop waves of pop videos and men and women being portrayed together don't easily co-exist with Iraqis who want to ban chess
It was also somewhat tactless of the US funded channel to show pictures of mosques to the accompaniment of western music. The opposition to the new media is more than mere academic criticism. Last month an Iraqi working for the US-funded Al Hurra channel was murdered in Basra.

The explosion of new satellite channels may soon revive debates about whether there should be limits on Iraq's new media. From Ayatollah Sistani's sophisticated new web site it is evident that there are conservative religious elements which might be alarmed.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein is not allowed to watch television in jail
The non-stop waves of pop videos and men and women being portrayed together don't easily co-exist with Iraqis who want to ban chess and are worried about temptation.

Sistani's supporters won most of the votes in the recent elections and the Shia influence will obviously dominate the new government.

But trying to control TV may not be at the top of their agenda. In any case, as one Iraqi TV observer puts it "there's nothing they can do; the genie is out of the bottle now."


David Lomax's film was broadcast by Newsnight on Friday, 25 February, 2005.

Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10.30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight was 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the link on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Watch highlights from Iraqi TV



SEE ALSO:
'Newsnight showed me my county'
11 Oct 04 |  Newsnight
Film-making in the wake of Saddam
09 Jan 05 |  Entertainment


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