BAGHDAD. The sat phones are lined up. The tents are in place. Dozens of languages fill the smoke filled atrium. Every kind of technical equipment imaginable is scattered about. The scene almost resembles an eerie version of the quick set up for a heavy metal concert. Welcome to the Press Center on the ground floor of the Iraqi Ministry of Information.
Over the last several weeks, low-paid Iraqi construction workers have rubbed elbows with journalists from CNN, BBC, The New York Times and a slew of other media outlets. The workers are halfway through a sizable construction project to expand the Press Center to accommodate the influx of the proverbial herds waiting for the war.
Inside the building, tiny 6′ x 6′ cubicles are now the hottest real estate on the Baghdad market. Officially, the space will cost you $500 a month. But space is limited and cash is flowing from the pockets of the major networks to Iraqi officials and the government to ensure access once the bombs start flying.
But it is not just the cubicles. Under the government guidelines, journalists cough up a handsome sum of money to the government and individual officials. Here are the bare minimums for journalists operating in Baghdad:
–$100/ day fee per journalist, cameraperson, technical staff etc.
–$150/ day fee for permission to use a satellite telephone (which the journalists have to provide themselves)
–$50-100/ day for a mandatory government escort
–$50-100/ day for a car and driver (some networks have a fleet of vehicles)
–$75/ day for a room at the Al Rashid Hotel
That’s already $500 and that doesn’t include the thousands of dollars daily for each direct live satellite feed for TV networks. Nor does it include the bribes and “tips” shelled out left and right. Nor does it include the money handed over at border crossings and the airport. The networks don’t like to talk about how much they actually spend, but one veteran of the media scene here estimated the cost for a major TV network at about $100,000 a month. Others say that is a low estimate. Almost all of this cash (except a few “tips” here and there) goes directly to the Iraqi government. Once you add up the bill for the TV networks alone, we’re talking perhaps millions of dollars in revenue a month for the government.
There is a joke here that the major media outlets are now competing with oil smuggling as the number one money-maker for the Iraqi government. It is particularly ironic that while Rupert Murdoch’s “troops” from FOX News Network rally for the war, dismissing antiwar activists as dupes of the Iraqi regime, the “network America trusts” is paying “Saddam” (as they refer to Iraq) hand over fist tens of thousands of dollars every month. But stroll down the halls of the press center and you’ll see that Rupert’s troops have multiple battalions. He also owns Sky News (the British version of FOX), as well as the Times of London. A bit of research would probably find that Murdoch owns other publications operating here as well.
FOX News reporters (and others as well) like to say “for the benefit of the viewers” that their broadcasts are being monitored by the Iraqi government. Fair enough. But perhaps the Murdoch Empire should begin each of its reports or dispatches from Baghdad by disclosing how much money they paid “Saddam” today.
JEREMY SCAHILL is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.