US-Funded Satellite TV Targets Iraqi Elite

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

London ( - Opponents of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein are expected to start beaming satellite television propaganda programs into the country within days, using funds provided by the U.S. Congress.

The programs will be aimed at viewers who are close to the Iraqi power structure, according to the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based umbrella of opposition groups.

Starting with a one-hour show repeated several times each evening, "Liberty TV" will comprise news and Iraqi music videos, as well as phone-in programs - although people inside Iraq are not expected to participate.

The station will be headquartered in Washington DC, with a "large production bureau" in London, INC communications advisor Zaab Sethna said Wednesday.

Annual running costs will be around $980,000, not including rental of a satellite transponder, which will run to another $1.2 million a year. An INC broadcasting program was approved earlier this summer by the Bush administration.

The INC says about one in four urban Iraqis are believed to have access to satellite TV, while in the Kurdish north, the figure rises to around 60 percent. In the south, where the Shi'ite population is centered, it drops to about 20 percent.

Opposition to the regime has been greatest in the north and south, where the Kurds and Shi'ite March Arabs respectively have borne the brunt of Baghdad's aggression.

But it is the elite of Iraqi society the programs will aim to reach, according to Sethna.

"The people we'll reach by satellite television are a small audience but an influential audience. They're the ones allowed to have satellite dishes [which are otherwise illegal in Iraq.]"

He said the type of viewer targeted would include military officers, government officials and merchants profiting from sanctions.

"These are the people we have to reach to make a change in Iraq."

Liberty TV hopes eventually to be able to show footage filmed secretly inside Iraq itself.

"People will use small digital cameras, smuggled into the country. People are active in the various areas of the country, including the major cities. They won't shoot stories in a conventional sense, but it's more clandestine filming of important sites or activities."

These could include mass graves, evidence of sanctions-busting, footage that could back up claims that Saddam is depriving Iraqis despite getting humanitarian aid under the U.N.'s oil-for-food program, while building luxurious palaces.

In recent days, for example, video footage had been smuggled out of the country showing army movements and destroyed villages in the southern marshes, where atrocities against the Shi'ites are believed to be continuing.

Asked whether the INC expected any kind of response from Baghdad to the new initiative, Sethna said the programs would probably prompt reaction typical of Saddam - "bluster and aggressive threats through the Iraqi state-run media."

Although the INC plans to move into radio at a later stage, it decided TV would be the most effective way to begin.

"It's more visible. It's visible around the world, it will send a strong message inside the country and will shake Saddam and the small group around him.

"Radio would certainly be received by more people," he conceded. "People can listen clandestinely in their homes."

The INC previously broadcast radio programs and although it was unable to get an accurate picture of listenership inside Iraq, the evidence was that they were "widely listened to and respected and trusted.

"They were a major thorn in the side of the regime, because control of information is one of the pillars of Saddam's power system."

INC broadcasts are not the only ones providing Iraqis with outside views to which their government would rather deny them access.

Beamed from Central Europe, Radio Free Iraq has been broadcasting for almost three years, a part of the Washington-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network.

RFI director David Newton said Wednesday the radio service offers "balanced and accurate reporting, without editorializing." From anecdotal reports, RFI believed it had a "significant audience, although we cannot measure it scientifically."

He could not measure the effectiveness of opposition broadcasters, "which take a different approach than we do."

"RFI ... operates within the tradition of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in seeking to promote democracy, human rights and freedom of expression by emphasizing these topics in our coverage," Newton said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow