Satellite Television is Iraq’s New Teacher

Feb 10, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Christina Asquith

Baghdad– The minute 5 year old Ali leaves his school house, only two letters occupy his thoughts: T.V.

“He watches cartoons until 11 pm at night, unless the power cuts,” says his mother. “His grades have dropped. It is a big problem.”

TV obsession may be a familiar problem to American parents, but it is entirely new to Iraqis. Until the war, television had 3 channels, all heavily censored and edited by Saddam’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Bare shoulders weren’t allowed. Neither were “kissing images” between non married couples. There were no commercials. Satellite, of course, was forbidden.

Now, cruise up and down Baghdad’s Kharadha Dahkil Avenue, and you’ll see boxes of satellite receivers unloaded from trucks and stacked high, bearing Japanese and Korean names like Strong, Star and Kyoto. An estimated 80 percent of Iraqi households have bought satellite dishes in the last nine months, piping in programs from CNN to Showtime. The Ministry of Vice and Virtue is a bombed out wreck, and no government agency has yet been formed to replace it. So, basically, it’s a programming free-for-all.

As a testament to television’s lure, Iraqi parents complain about TV at the same time that they admit they can’t pry themselves away from it. Ali’s mom says she is addicted to the 1970s Egyptian romance movies broadcast on local channels, nothing of the like she has ever seen.

“It is so hard not to watch,” says Amal Abdul Latif, who works in public relations at Baghdad University and is studying for her PhD “After the war when no one was working, we just watched TV all day long. We fought for the remote.”

Along with democracy, the Americans have brought television to Iraq, just as they plunge into their own debate about the kind of degrading standards that allowed the ‘mistaken’ baring of Janet Jackson’s breast, offending millions of families and children.

Iraqis are unprepared to have such a debate. Baghdad is a commercial-free, highly conservative, religious society. There are no Calvin Klein billboards of scantily clad androgynous teenagers. No sex-saturated soda commercials. No US Weekly magazines chronicling the rich and famous. No need for Nikes. No Britney Spears videos, although a few posters have started popping up around music stores of wealthy neighborhoods.

But things are changing. Since the war, they’ve slowly been invaded by the worst of the western world pop culture and consumerism. Around Baghdad these days, you can see a group of men in robes, jostling prayer beads, huddled around a television of a mud-caked Christina Aguilera singing “Dirty”. Children are beginning to “need” products, like cartoon character toys and western clothes.

My driver, Amir, woke up recently at 2am to the soft murmur of voices. Climbing from the thin mattress on the Persian rug of his bedroom, Amir peeked into the living room and saw Hussein, his 16 year old son, glued to the family’s television. Hussein, whose most evil sin until now was the occasional cigarette, was watching scantily clad women on “Hot Bird” the satellite channel that shows adult television.

“We do not allow this in our Koran and our family,” Amir said. “Hussein was deeply ashamed. For three dinners he did not look me in the eye.”

Amir ordered Hussein to never watch such channels again. But he didn’t talk to his son. He had no idea what to say. “Hussein knows it is wrong. I will rely on this.”

As in the US, Iraqi television is broken down into local and satellite: local TV is 19 channels run by Iraqi Media Network (IMN), created and supervised by the U.S. IMN general manager Shamim Razan says she has no formal set of standards but uses her own judgment about what is appropriate. IMN does not show advertising, partial nudity or violence.

“You have to be sensitive to the local culture. I won’t put on ‘The Terminator’,” Razan said.

Unfortunately, IMN is about as popular as PBS-it’s educational, informative, and largely bypassed by the majority of viewers for the more racy satellite TV.

Receiver dishes cost between $100 and $400, offering anywhere from 100 to 500 channels; from music videos, cartoons and soft-porn. Most satellite systems allow parents to put blocks on certain challenges, but parents say children are tech-savvy enough to undo these.

Today, Iraqis are happy with the broad array of political perspectives represented on the news shows now available. Under Saddam’s regime, ‘news’ shows were vehicles of his propaganda. Children’s shows were frequently interrupted by images promoting the Iraq-Iran war. All foreign television was put on a time delay, and edited for anything deemed against the Baath Party. Only negative news about Israel was allowed.

Today, they say they are more educated about world and local news. They are curious to hear the US point of view, as they believe is represented by CNN. But they don’t want to be tempted by shows promoting violence, nudity, or a disregard for their fellow human beings. They don’t want Jerry Springer, female wrestling, vacuous game shows.

Is it impossible to create responsible television?

It’s a question not only for Iraq, but also for America.

At least Americans have the Federal Communications Commission. Unfortunately in Iraq, there is no government or otherwise agency to regulate TV. There is no one to police the streets. There is no one to police the airwaves.

Fundamentalist religious groups are filling the gap. They have called for a ban on irresponsible television. Looking at the declining standards of American TV, one can begin to understand their appeal. However, in talking to these religious groups, one can see the dangers of not offering the people a legitimate way to help regulate their society.

I have written here many times before about the ubiquitous acts of terrorism here. It’s affecting university professors, translators, teachers-no sector of society is safe. This week, five Iraqi translators working for the US government were murdered. Assassins drove to their homes, and shot them in their front yards. These acts stem partly from frustration that people feel for not having a vehicle to get their views across-no judicial system, no representation of government, nothing to counter the acts of an unaccountable 18-year old US soldier. Terrorism is an act of desperation-when people feel they have no alternative to be heard.

Right now, anger is brewing over television, and Iraqis have no outlet for their voices. The FCC in America would be smart to respond to the US’s public’s outcry over Superbowl shenanigans. Likewise, the Americans have an obligation to help the Iraqis set up similar body to respond to parents’ complaints about how profiteering television channels are sending profane images into their living rooms. If someone doesn’t react, a terrorist might.

I took this issue to the editor of the Al Hawza newspaper, who represents the views Iraq’s leading Shia religious group. Al Hawza has been publicly calling for television regulation, and visiting IMN to push their agenda.

The editor, Sayed Ale Abdul Azi Al Yassiri, said: “We are not rejecting the TV. There are educational and scientific programs that we are not against. I let my children watch them.”

What does he deem unacceptable?

“We reject what upsets the Virgin Mary. We believe in personal freedom, but within the framework set by God. There are movies on the TV and ladies with short dresses. That would make the Virgin Mary upset.”

Why do you find TV upsetting?

“For example, my children and I enter a dance room and we dance for 10 hours. What have we done? Have we educated ourselves or our society? You want your son to be a clever one. I encourage him to watch the science programs and shows about civilization. What I object to is them watching dancing or violence.”

Do the Americans working at IMN respond to Al Hawza’s concerns about TV?

“I have many friends at Iraqi Media Network. I tell them this is wrong and unacceptable.”

Were you satisfied with their response?

“We are waiting to see if the Grand Ayatollah issues a fatwa against TV.” He paused.

What does that mean? I asked.

“If there is a fatwa to destroy the TV we will destroy it,” he said.

What do you mean “destroy it”? I asked. Are you suggesting an act of terrorism?

“We have our own ways,” he said.

What kind of ways?

“These people working in IMN, they are Iraqis. We know where they live. So we’ll go to their house and we’ll stop them.”

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