BAGHDAD — For Habib al-Sadr, head of Iraq’s state-funded television channel Al-Iraqiya, the future lies in more religion, more news.
In an interview with Variety 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 of Al-Furkan, a new religious channel that will preem in time for the start of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, which begins mid-September. The new channel will join the three existing Al-Iraqiya national channels — the flagship variety channel, the sports channel and multi-lingual spectrum channel.
Initially broadcasting for just six hours a day, Al-Furkan will consist solely of readings from the Koran, before eventually growing into a 24-hour national religious channel, Sadr said.
“Then next year we’ll be launching a 24-hour news channel, which will be a first for Iraq,” said the balding 55-year-old television executive.
“We already have 90 newsroom journalists plus 60 political reporters and much of the equipment we need for the news channel,” he said. “We need to spend a little more — maybe $3 million — on equipment and then all will be in place.”
But the money is not the main consideration — the Iraqi government foots the annual $50 million budget of the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), the umbrella group which 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 75 and wounded 68 members of his staff since he took over the channel in 2005.
Among those abducted and murdered by insurgents was popular female presenter Nakshin Hamid, while poet Rahim al-Maliki, who hosted cultural programs, was killed in a bomb attack.
“It’s very dangerous for journalists in Iraq,” said Sadr, fidgeting with a set of black prayer beads as he spoke.
Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders said in its latest report that 64 journalists and media assistants were killed in 2006, bringing to 194 the total number who have died since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Sadr said that he himself is a prime target and that he receives dozens of death threats every day.
“They come by telephone, by email, and by text message,” he said.
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,” said Sadr.
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 in order to please the Crusaders.”
Under Saddam’s rule, there were only two television channels: a dour national station which constantly carried the president’s speeches, and a youth network run by his son Uday.
Since Saddam’s fall, however, television channels have mushroomed 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 launch their own dedicated news channel.
“We are taking our time to make sure it is done properly. We want to achieve something unique in Iraq,” he said, adding that he is determined not to let his pet project become a vehicle for propaganda.
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 said.
Himself a Shiite, 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 purposes.
“We are an independent company and are doing our best to deflect the pressure but we haven’t yet fully succeeded,” Sadr acknowledged.
“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,” said Sadr.