This is what one can expect to see when zapping through the TV channels on a random night in Baghdad.
TV1 shows an English-American action movie with axe murderers. TV2 transmits a live football match. Another channel offers an interview with a British activist who brought medicine to Iraq and discusses how important it is to inform the people at home. The interview is going on in English without any translation. As the logo pops up on the screen, I learn that I am watching Iraq Highlight, one of the two programmes that I have seen with an international profile. Here, viewers are briefed on what happened during the day: diplomatic meetings of various leaders, the regime’s political focus, and of course, whom Saddam Hussein has met, written a letter to or received a letter from today. Another evening I hear him praise the air force’s heroic combat and readiness against aggression.
Press Review is on Iraq Satellite Channel around midnight. The programme describes what foreign newspapers, especially in the West, have written about Iraq. Various articles critical of Western and the US foreign policy are cited. The international news coverage has the following headlines: “Iraq fights international terrorism but the US is the biggest terrorist of all”; “Improving relations and dialogues with other Arab countries”; “Iraq has improved its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia”; “Export of raw Iraqi oil to Turkey resumed”; “Earthquake in Taiwan”; “Heat wave in India”; “Arab countries support the courageous combat of the Palestinian people.” I begin to understand how useful it is for me to get a glimpse of the world-view that the Iraqi people live with.
Later on, the Iraq TV Channel presents a documentary on the creation of the state of Israel. It focuses on the terror under Begin and Shamir, Ben Gurions’ leadership and today’s Zionism, which Iraqis generally perceive as a bigger problem than American imperialism. Arabic music videos are presented on other channels as well as a report from a military training camp and, surprise-surprise, a film with Julia Roberts…
In the afternoon, around 4pm, I can watch Arabic solo dancing to the music of a traditional orchestra and languorous violins. Wearing a tight black dress, a short woman with red lips, long hair and voluptuous breasts, moves her hips in a very expressive way, to say the least. The neighbouring channel’s disco-gogo girls (who are no less scantily dressed than their Western sisters) appear like amateurs compared with that girl and the others dancing gracefully after her.
Iraq is definitely not immune from the internationalisation of American culture. Everyday, various American movies are presented on one channel or another. What’s funny about those movies is that both sound and image will suddenly freeze and a sign appears saying that “this film is strictly for private showing” and that one has to call a number in New York if the movie is rented! They are probably bootleg videos from around the world. Many of them had subtitles in Japanese and a Disney film had Swedish subtitles!
In the morning, the country’s emblem with an eagle and a heart-shaped flag in the middle appears on one or several channels. Then, all of a sudden, the face of Saddam Hussein comes out of the heart and the image changes to soldiers marching to a overly sentimental choir singing of the glory of Saddam.
It is naturally impossible to forget who is in power here. There are thousands of monuments and paintings on Baghdad’s streets and gates, some of them rather poor artistically. Similarly, in every public office, there is at least one (often 3 or 4) pictures of Saddam. It is a unique cult of personality that appears rather pathetic to me. I see it as Saddam’s will to be remembered, not only while alive, but also after his reign, just like the great Nebukadnezar. He is unfolding some sort of plan for immortality. One wonders if anyone actually sees those portraits on the gates and walls of the city, or if they escape notice like streetlights or advertisements.
On Iraq Satellite Channel News around midnight on 20-21 May, President Saddam Hussein is shown chairing this year’s 27th cabinet meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council. He is the only one in civilian clothes. All of the other Ministers are wearing a green uniform and a beret. They salute Saddam as he walks into the room. The walls and the tablecloth are white, and so are the curtains that filter the light coming into the room. There is an Iraqi flag on the left-hand side of the screen behind Saddam. A flower arrangement and glasses of water on the table; there are no piles of paper or signs of hurry. The speaker says a few words. The camera then focuses on the President’s motionless face. The sequence is repeated, and then the speaker stops talking. For about a minute, the room’s sacred character is emphasized by a slow passage of a Bach cantata. A true seance of political religion!
Later on, viewers are informed that Baghdad’s 33rd Internet cafe is now open. I found this slightly confusing because it was said at the same time that the sanctions had hindered the spread of computers, since computers can be used both for civilian and military purposes. The announcement exposes the extent of the smuggling industry in Iraq.
Internet and e-mail are also spreading in Iraq. But the situation is slightly more difficult with satellite television. Private individuals are not allowed to have their own satellite dish. But I am told that quite a few have one anyway, hidden behind a water tank on the roof. The owner then risks being reported by the neighbours or even their own family. A person caught with such a device gets the equivalent of a 500$ fine, while the informer receives a reward of 250$. It is a considerable sum for the ordinary citizen whose monthly salary or pension is approximately 5-10$. It is very tempting to be an informer in such conditions.
Finally, what is the situation with the newspapers? As I cannot read Arabic, I do not have a valuable personal opinion on the three daily papers. But according to certain sources, all three papers belong to the army and the Baath party. On 22 May, all three papers had the same picture of the President discussing with the same diplomatic delegation, the same headlines and the same layout on the front page. There is a daily paper in English, Iraq Daily, which always carries a quote by Saddam Hussein (allegedly badly translated) as well as other domestic, international, and Arab news and features such as society, lifestyle, sport, science, technology and computer information. In the 28 May edition, there were four pages on culture, literature and films and a single one about sport, which in my opinion is a good balance compared to what is offered by most of the Western newspapers! Many articles are about Western writers and artists and are translations from, for example, BBC material (see for yourself <www.uruklink.net/iraqdaily>).
It is true that there are no such things as the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech in Iraq. All important media channels are said to be controlled by Saddam Hussein, one of his sons or another family member. Nevertheless, one should not conclude that Iraqis are ignorant or that they cannot think for themselves. In reality, they know a lot more about the West, through radio, television, the Internet and newspapers, than we know about Iraq from our media here in the West. Our press is also censored and controlled; driven by other interests, to be sure, but also not truly free.
JAN OBERG is director of Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research based in Lund, Sweden.
Translated by Jean-Francois Drolet.