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Archive for Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Iraqis beam at satellite TV offerings

June 25, 2003

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— After years of all-Saddam-most-of-the-time, it comes as quite a change for Iraqis to watch "Tom and Jerry" and the Arabic version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Liberated from 35 years of stilted official TV glorifying Saddam Hussein, Iraqis are snatching up satellite dishes by the thousands. Cartoons, fitness programs, movies and commercials are flooding into Iraqi living rooms.

These days, in fact, when a favorite show comes on, Iraqis on rooftops yell to neighbors to alert them.

Satellite television is one of the perks U.S.-British occupation has brought postwar Iraq. It has helped introduce them to open debate, free speech and spin, along with the culture of couch potatoes and remote control fights.

"We're like the blind who have been offered the gift of sight," said Mahabat Ahmad, 32, a translator.

The demand for satellite dishes has continued despite a lack of electricity. Prices have dropped from $300 two months ago to about $250.

"They're buying them like they buy bread," said Mohammed al-Mulla, who works in an electronics store. "They say they're buying freedom."

The new freedom has opened doors for the country's American occupiers, who are setting up a new channel in hopes of winning over Iraqis. But it also offers an opportunity for critics to spread anti-U.S. sentiment.

An Iranian-financed TV channel broadcasting in Arabic slams the U.S. presence in Iraq, showing footage of Iraqis mourning two Iraqi soldiers killed by American troops, shots of women being searched and a photo montage featuring Saddam, President Bush and Adolf Hitler.

An Iraqi man ties a newly purchased satellite dish to his car in
downtown Baghdad. Satellite television, which was banned during
Saddam Hussein's regime, is now in big demand in Iraq.

An Iraqi man ties a newly purchased satellite dish to his car in downtown Baghdad. Satellite television, which was banned during Saddam Hussein's regime, is now in big demand in Iraq.

The Americans have sent advisers contracted by the Defense Department to help set up the Iraqi Media Network. The network is still experimental, but it will let Americans tell their side of the story.

The channel, which doesn't even have a reliable source of electricity yet, hasn't selected its programming.

To guard against dissent, Saddam's regime was obsessed with censoring everything Iraqis saw, heard or read.

Satellite dishes were banned and anyone caught with one was jailed for six months and fined up to $500. Security forces raided neighborhoods and flew helicopters low over areas where residents were suspected of having dishes. Informing on neighbors, relatives or friends with satellite dishes brought a $25 reward.

On the three official channels, scenes were bleeped out when actors mentioned America or dollars or Kuwait, which was invaded by Saddam's forces in 1990. News focused mostly on Saddam, exalting him as a humanitarian, peace-loving man adored by his people footage most Iraqis privately scorned as lies.

Few Iraqis bothered to watch television, although members of the ruling Baath Party had to because they were quizzed about Saddam's speeches.

Mohamad Razouk risked punishment three years ago when he bought a satellite dish.

"They cut everything, including kissing," he said. "I am a man. I wanted to see kissing. It drove me crazy."

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