BAGHDAD — With more than 30 satellite and terrestrial channels operating in Iraq, a far cry from the two that existed under Saddam Hussein’s rigid rule, the television industry should by now be celebrating its new-found freedom.
Instead, it has turned inward, becoming a mish-mash of sectarianized channels linked directly or loosely with partisan power blocs and reflecting the country’s highly fractured political reality.
While nine or 10 core satellite channels and as many regional stations have survived the turmoil of the past four years, others have started up or closed down at irregular intervals mainly for commercial reasons.
An unfortunate few have been shut down by the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Tellingly, the two most-watched channels, as rated by research group Ipsos-Stat, have been booted out of the country — Saudi newscaster Al-Arabiya for a while, and Dubai-based Al-Sharqiya permanently.
Both offended Maliki’s government. Al-Arabiya was accused of attempting to stoke sectarian tensions in the country with its gory coverage of the ongoing Iraqi carnage — charges channel execs denied — while Al-Sharqiya served up political parody bound to offend.
The end for the channel came after one Al-Sharqiya presenter appeared on air shortly after the execution of Saddam Hussein wearing black as a sign of mourning.
The shutting of its offices in Baghdad had little effect, however, and despite what many perceive as a pro-Sunni bias it remains highly popular in Iraq with its mix of skeins and satirical laffers that poke fun at life in the troubled country.
But while Al-Sharqiya is at least discreet about the line it toes, other channels are more blatant about their political proclivities.
State-run Al-Iraqiya is viewed by many as a sectarian, Shiite channel.
Countering this is Baghdadia TV, a moderate Sunni channel, and Baghdad TV, run by the Iraqi Islamist Party with a clear pro-Sunni agenda.
Al-Furat (The Euphrates) based in Najaf is believed to be backed by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as is Basra-based Al-Fayha.
The list goes on — Al-Rafidain supports and is supported by the Assn. of Muslim Scholars; Afaq TV backs the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party; Beladi bends toward Maliki’s Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance; Ashur backs the Assyrian Democratic Party.
Ironically, the one factor that does bind them together loosely is that all are faced with high costs — both human and monetary — due to the relentless sectarian violence ravaging the country.
All have lost reporters, presenters and anchors to death squads, car bombs and snipers.
Extra budgets are required to provide protection for staff, who are regularly prevented from turning up for work, while filming outside of studios is risky.
Al-Sharqiya’s flamboyant owner Saad Bazzaz — once a Saddam man before defecting — earlier this year projected a vision of unity that many had hoped would be the norm when the airways opened up after the U.S. invasion of March 2003.
“We do not belong to that group of channels that represent a particular sect or political party,” Bazzaz tells Variety. “In Al-Sharqiya, there are no Shias or Sunnis. There are only Iraqis. We have had employees killed by groups from all sides.”