Iraq Rejoins the Airwaves

Amid violence, a nation finds its voice
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Amid violence, a nation finds its voice

BAGHDAD

March 20, British and American forces began a massive military operation in Iraq to free the country of Saddam Hussein's regime. But when the bulk of the fighting receded, and President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1, there came an equally dedicated deployment of forces to rebuild and restore the capabilities of everyday life in that country, including the various broadcasting functions that, it is hoped, will soon reflect a free and democratic Iraq.

One of the many results of this undertaking is the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) a newly created Pentagon-contracted support agency and the successor to Iraq's now-dissolved Ministry of Information. The IMN was assigned the task of rebuilding a free and independent press under the newly formed office of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which officially took over the reins from the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA) on June 1. Also overseen by the Department of Defense, the CPA currently runs the country until an Iraqi-led transitional government can effectively take its place.

That the IMN station is online today owes as much to the precision capabilities of the military as the technical skills that followed on its heels, says Staff Sgt. Noreen Feeney, a public affairs coordinator for IMN. "When I [first] went to the TV station, it was two completely empty buildings, but not even 25 feet away was the completely destroyed old TV building," says Feeney, who also serves as a photojournalist with the 318th Public Affairs Operations Center in Forest Park, Ill. "It was unbelievable. They never even scratched the building they're using now."

Today both radio and TV are on the air, as well as an IMN-run newspaper. But initially, says SSG Feeney, the task was not without daunting challenges from the outset of the war. Like any fledgling broadcast operation, the first mountains to climb were the acquisition of sufficient power and equipment and hiring staff and reporters, difficulties multiplied many times over in the post-war environment. Looted and vandalized buildings and a lack of electricity and banking capabilities presented a considerable challenge.

Providing adequate power was paramount. "At the time of the original broadcast, only about half of Baghdad even had the power to watch it," says Feeney. Electricity was cut off at 7 p.m. at the broadcast facility, as it was throughout Baghdad. With only one generator to run the editing studio, a "Wayne's World" look characterized some of the initial broadcasts. "ORHA could easily have taken power from Baghdad's power grid, but refused to do so. They worked around it and did without for the citizens. After all, what good would it do to suck up power to get the station on the air when it would leave the citizens without the power to watch it?"

BAGS OF CASH

Although broadcasting equipment was purchased prior to deployment, sudden technical needs posed a problem at first. "Baghdad has no Office Depot or Sears," says Feeney, a Chicago police officer in civilian life. "It could mean several days to get the necessary cable to connect this camera with that VTR ... Initially, $50,000 was brought up to Baghdad in a shopping bag. The [original] editing suite was two machines on a table in one of Saddam's bedrooms."

Compatibility issues arose due to Iraq's PAL environment, and the mix-and-match, aged legacy equipment. "We had a hard time convincing Washington that it takes time," she says. "We have six cameras currently-Beta, DV, mostly older stuff, with the exception of a few places used by 'special media' charged with producing Saddam's propaganda.

"They comprise four different formats, along with three edit suites, two of which won't work with three of the camera systems," she says. "We have lots of stuff that was looted and is now being offered back to us at throwaway prices, but not good, compatible, well-maintained equipment." Feeney cites an ongoing need for generators, air conditioners, and AM transmitters. "[We were] buying satellite receivers and dishes in downtown bazaars," she says.

Initially, a cliffhanger atmosphere predominated in news production. "The system they had in the beginning was that content was taped in the field, and brought to the editing studio [the former Saddam bedroom] and edited, then driven to the transmission site, two miles away through city traffic. It was the only way to do it here," says Feeney. Without archived material as backup, "Everyday the guy at the transmission site would sweat bullets, because the next segment was airing in 10 minutes and the tape wasn't there yet. It's not that bad now, but it was very hard over the weeks." Still, she says, each success is savored. "The biggest accomplishment was actually flipping the switch that first day and having everything work!"

I WANT MY BAGHDAD TV

Baghdad will continue to broadcast 10 to 12 hours a day, expanding to possibly 18 in the future. As expected, restoring television created a demand for even more. "They were happy to have it, but now they want more of it," says Feeney, who worked with embedded journalists during the war.

Rebuilding a network of "affiliates" came next. At the outset, IMN identified a total of 18 population centers around Iraq. While Baghdad, with its 340-meter tower complete with TV and FM antennas, will continue to be at its center, Basra in the south and Mosul in the north will have local production capability and will be able to cut in and provide additional content.

"Saddam had little stations scattered around the country," says a senior advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority to IMN, who spoke on condition that his name be withheld and is working in Iraq as part of a DoD contract with Science Applications International Inc. (SAIC), which was hired to rebuild the Iraqi media.

"As quickly as transportation and security permit, IMN visits those stations and encourages the staff of the usually looted facility to 'rejoin' the [CPA-led] government. We uplink Baghdad TV and FM, and are eager to provide necessary downlink equipment; satellite dishes, receivers, transmitters, material to refit the towers, and repair [or replace] generators. Then the small stations broadcast terrestrially," says the advisor.

Ultimately, the plan is to have affiliates receiving satellite feeds for 18 hours a day, then cutting away from the Baghdad feed to put on local news and stories. "We aren't there yet, but we're getting close," he said.

There is no current ENG capability, nor is there a proposed timeline, says the CPA advisor. But newer equipment is being purchased, mostly Sony DV cameras and mini-edit suites. A master control room and a studio control room are also planned, says the advisor.

An SNG truck in Baghdad and a satellite dish array currently enables downlinking, which extends to include operational facilities in Basra, Al Hillah, Ar Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, An Nasariyah, and Haiditha, among others. Although not all are technically affiliated with IMN, most will be brought under the IMN umbrella by the end of July, say CPA officials. Current spectrum management is overseen by the Ministry of Communications, which is currently accepting applications for independent radio and TV stations.

SECURITY

Security is still an ongoing problem, says Feeney, admiring the steadfast approach of the ORHA, CPA and IMN personnel. "They're very professional and know how to get a station going. Some of them slept at the TV tower to protect it during nightly firefights," she says. "There are still many Saddam loyalists trying to disrupt and prevent the broadcasts from being successful."

Two studios are scheduled for Baghdad's future-one in the National Convention Center, scheduled to be a state-of-the-art, 21st century showpiece where, it is planned, a new Iraqi president will one day broadcast his message to the nation. Another will be in Saliheya compound where, says Feeney, IMN anticipates moving IMN production within a few months. "They still need a home," she says, referring to the one-room facility still in use. USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) provided $100,000 for a "studio-in-a-box," which was used to acquire its digital editing equipment, as well as installing doors and windows in the buildings.

While undertaking these tasks, adds Feeney, it's worth noting the lack of most creature comforts. "We're being paid to make this happen," she states, noting a lack of sleeping quarters, air conditioning (in temperatures reaching 120 degrees), office space, telephones, and home-cooked food. "We accept them as part of the contract," she says. "What we're finding harder to accept is the U.S. sense that this is something of a slow-moving process."

While allowing that the IMN hasn't yet reached CNN-style capabilities, Feeney says local citizens seem to be happy with the results, which early on included readings from the Koran by Iraqis at the start of every broadcast-a tradition in the Muslim world. "ORHA never once thought of chucking [the practice]," she says. "Once the Iraqis made clear that it would not be perceived as a practice from the regime days, it continued to lead off every broadcast."