Let Iraq's national media be filled with the voices of Iraqis

April 29, 2003|By Jamie F. Metzl

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has announced that it will immediately begin broadcasting subtitled American television network news programming and White House, State Department and Pentagon briefings on Iraqi television.

Although the Iraqi population badly needs reliable news and information in this critical time of transition, the United States will lose an important opportunity to set the stage for a democratic Iraq if we fill the Iraqi airwaves with our own voices rather than theirs.

American bombs and bullets have toppled the Iraqi regime, but generating symbolic demonstrations of democracy and openness within Iraq will pave the way for a better future.

To the people of Iraq, President Bush's proclamations about Iraqi freedom alone may not be ultimately convincing. But concrete action to put democracy and openness into practice could well prove cataclysmic. The United States must therefore make getting indigenous media up and running a top priority.

Local radio and television stations are not a substitute for food and water, nor an antidote to fear and insecurity. But if done well, they can be an incubator of hope.

It is difficult to imagine how transformative it might be for the Iraqi people to hear their own voices in public discourse after 35 years of terrified silence. If recent experiences in the Balkans can be a guide, however, it is clear that indigenous media have the power to inspire the disenfranchised, counter hostile propaganda and change a political culture. Iraq need not be different.

An Iraq public television and radio would not carry allied messages or Central Command, White House or Pentagon briefings. Instead, its primary purpose would be to broadcast indigenous dialogue. No topic should be off the table so long as multiple viewpoints can be respectfully expressed.

Shows might consider how to deal with Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, the nature of a post-Hussein government, the role of Islam in Iraq's future, the use of Iraq's oil wealth and the role of U.S. and allied troops in Iraq.

Time between discussions could be filled chiefly with local news temporarily supplemented with the pooled Arabic-language news programming from a variety of major international radio and TV networks, including the Voice of America, the BBC, Radio France International, Radio Monte Carlo and even Al-Jazeera. All regular on-air personalities should be Iraqis from different ethnic groups and tribes.

Although the Pentagon announced recently that it had moved ground-based equipment into Iraq to begin broadcasting, this equipment will be wasted if it is not used to get indigenous Iraqi voices on the air immediately.

Over time, the United States and its allies should select independent, nongovernmental organizations to help get reliable local media on the air.

Concurrently, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development should arrange for a meeting of Iraqi journalists, international media professionals and others to develop an interim press code and identify immediate needs for jump-starting free media in Iraq.

Independent media entrepreneurs, such as Kosovo editor Veton Surroi, should be brought in to work with the Iraqis.

Although an Iraqi public television and radio network may well carry criticism of some allied policies and actions, such criticism ultimately could benefit the United States if properly balanced by alternative views. Iraqis, as all who have lived under manipulative regimes, have learned to easily identify propaganda.

America's best response to the harsh criticisms that will continue to be leveled against us, no matter how successful we may be in Iraq, will be to open dialogue and let ideas and arguments compete, including our own. We don't need to dominate the airwaves to be heard. In the long term, our values may serve us better than even our best arguments.

Once established, Iraqi public television and radio can be broadcast to all of Iraq. The first national broadcast could announce that Iraqi public radio will be the platform for a decentralized national network dedicated to responsible journalism and honest, respectful, open dialogue and debate.

Two months ago, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that by broadcasting Pentagon press briefings to Iraq, Iraqis would get a taste of democracy in action. Most educated Iraqis have long known what our democracy looks like. It would be truly revolutionary to take the dramatic first step of quickly establishing the kernel of Iraqi public television and radio to offer them a first glimpse of theirs.

Jamie F. Metzl is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official of the National Security Council and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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