03/01/2006 — Take a healthy dose of Idaho Public Television's "Dialogue," add a bit of Treasure Valley TV's cable-access programming and throw in some middle-school drama class props and you've got a pretty good idea of Iraqi Media Network.
While Kirkuk's local station may lack the polish and flair of U.S. television stations, it's an important step in opening the doors of government and letting people see and question their leaders.
Saddam Hussein tightly controlled media during his rule. Iraqis could be imprisoned or killed for having a satellite dish. Any dissent by Iraqi citizens could be punished by death.
IMN is a radical change. The station has three weekly talk shows from its studio in Kirkuk: one devoted to police topics, another with local government officials and a third about Kirkuk and the new Iraq.
The shows are produced in a cavernous studio with Sony digital cameras similar to what you would find in any U.S. electronics store. The backdrops look like they were painted by junior high students. The production is amateurish by U.S. standards; a lapel mike twice slipped off one guest during a live broadcast last week, and both times a technician walked in front of the camera to replace it.
While the broadcast lacked cutting-edge technology, fancy backdrops and slick production, it didn't lack substance.
"These shows are really stripping away any veneer on the government," said Lt. Col. Gordon Petrie of Emmett. "It's laying local government bare and making it very transparent, and that's a good thing."
Petrie, who in civilian life is a 3rd District magistrate judge in Gem County, handles public information duties for the 116th Brigade Combat Team in Kirkuk and is an adviser to the network.
The network is one way the 116th is helping Iraqis get information about the activities of their government and the coalition forces there. The 116th also has set up meetings with Kirkuk provincial leaders, hosted press events for Iraqi media with local officials and made 116th commander Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart available for press conferences.
Many of the 41 members of the newly seated Kirkuk Provincial Council have held press conferences and appeared on IMN to answer constituent questions.
Show features terrorist interviews
A recent Kirkuk station show featured Gen. Sherko Hassen, Kirkuk's provincial police chief; Thaher Al-Bayati, provincial chief justice; and Abdullal Al Qader, the moderator.
Their 1-hour, 15-minute show was a combination of news, local politics, cop drama, caller questions and propaganda. The show was translated by an Iraqi interpreter employed by the U.S. Army.
The show included jailhouse interviews with two admitted insurgents who had planted roadside bombs and fired rockets at U.S. soldiers.
In the interviews, both men said they planted the bombs because they needed money. They said they each received $100 for each attack — the equivalent of about two-weeks pay for an Iraqi police officer.
The two men said they had no political or religious reasons for the attacks.
They also apologized for their acts and asked others not to work for terrorists.
Hassen encouraged viewers to turn in terrorists.
Chief justice Al-Bayati said that acts of terrorism can be punished by life imprisonment or execution, and a judge in Baghdad would decide the fate of the two terrorists.
Complaints about media coverage
Hassen complained about local coverage of events in Kirkuk by Al Jazeera and Al Arabia, two news agencies based outside Iraq. Hassen said the organizations give incorrect information, and urged Iraqis to watch the government-owned IMN to get their information.
The U.S. military helped get the station operating before the Jan. 30 Iraq elections, Petrie said, but has stepped back since and let Iraqis run it.
"Now Iraqis are in the front seat, and we're in back," Petrie said.
"Our main purpose is to support them in any way we can."
Petrie said the Army has little editorial control over the station's broadcasts.
"They can pretty much say anything they want as long as they're not inciting a riot," he said.
Neither does the Iraqi government exercise censorship over the show, Petrie said.
Producers minimally screen the callers before they get to address the guests during the call-in segments.
"They use some pretty colorful language," Petrie said.