BAGHDAD — For Habib al-Sadr, head of Iraq’s state-funded TV network Al Iraqiya, the future lies in religion and news.
Sitting in his plush office on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad’s Karkh district, Sadr unveiled his expansion plans for the next year or so.
First up will be the launch in a few weeks at the Sept. 13 start of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan of a new religious channel, Al Furkan, an adjunct to Al Iraqiya’s flagship variety channel, the sports channel and multilingual spectrum channel.
Initially broadcasting for six hours a day, Al Furkan will carry only readings from the Quran, eventually growing into a 24-hour national channel, Sadr says.
“Then, next year, we’ll launch a 24-hour news channel, which will be a first for Iraq,” says the 55-year-old executive. “We already have 90 newsroom journalists plus 60 political reporters and much of the equipment we need for the news channel. We need to spend a little more — maybe $3 million — on equipment, and then all will be in place.”
Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, there were only two TV channels — a dour national station that continuously carried the president’s speeches, and a youth network run by his son Uday.
TV channels have mushroomed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and rooftops across Iraq now bristle with satellite dishes.
With foreign channels such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, CNN and the BBC readily available, Sadr says it’s time for Iraqis to have their own dedicated news channel.
Though he has launched two national TV channels and seven regional channels, 11 radio stations and six newspapers since he took over as head of the Iraqi Media Network in 2005, Sadr sees a 24-hour news channel as his pet project. And he wants to make sure it succeeds.
“We are taking our time to make sure it is done properly. We want to achieve something unique in Iraq,” he says, adding that he is determined not to let the project become a vehicle for propaganda.
The Iraqi government foots the annual $50 million budget of the Iraqi Media Network, the umbrella group that controls Al Iraqiya and of which Sadr is director general.
The greater challenge facing Sadr is dealing with Iraq’s raging sectarian violence, which he says has killed at least 76 of his staffers, including a cameraman last week, and wounded 68 since he took over the channel in 2005.
Among those abducted and murdered by insurgents was female presenter Nakshin Hamid. Poet Rahim al-Maliki, who hosted cultural programs, was killed in a bomb attack.
“It’s very dangerous for journalists in Iraq,” says Sadr, fidgeting with a set of black prayer beads.
Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders said in its latest report that 64 journalists and media assistants were killed in 2006, bringing to 194 the number who have died since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Sadr says he is a prime target, and he receives dozens of death threats every day “by telephone, by email and by text message.”
While he shrugs off the threats, he’s also cautious. Not many months back, his convoy was raked with gunfire while on the way from Baghdad’s airport.
“I am a target for Al Qaeda and for members of Saddam Hussein’s former regime,” Sadr says.
An Al Qaeda affiliate claimed the killing last year of an Al Iraqiya station manager, saying it considered the station “a mouthpiece for the government … which was always eager to broadcast lies about jihad (holy war) and the mujahedeen (Muslim warriors) to please the Crusaders (the U.S.).”
He admits that Al Iraqiya is not as independent as he would like it to be.
“Yes, we are always under pressure from political and religious groups, but we are doing our best to resist this,” he says.
Himself a Shia, Sadr is often accused of promoting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government and allowing it to use his television and radio channels for propaganda.
“We are an independent company and are doing our best to deflect the pressure, but we haven’t yet fully succeeded,” Sadr acknowledges.
“My main ambition is to establish free and independent media in Iraq. If I can achieve this, it will be a first in the Arab world.”