Last month, Sunni-run TV channel al-Zawraa was banned by Iraqi authorities. After a few weeks, it returned to the air as an explicitly anti-Shiite pirate broadcast. McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam describes the civil war that’s playing out on the airwaves.
Listen to examples of English-language propaganda being broadcast on Al-Zawraa:
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BOB GARFIELD: The rhetorical civil war in Iraq escalated further last month with the return of al-Zawraa, an anti-Shiite, anti-American satellite TV channel, launched in November, 2005, by a Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament who has since fled to Syria amid charges of corruption.
The channel was ordered closed last month after if loudly lamented the death sentence imposed on Saddam Hussein, but within weeks, al-Zawraa was back on the air, broadcasting from a series of undisclosed locations. McClatchy Newspapers reporter Hannah Allam was in her Baghdad office when she noticed the channel’s rebirth.
HANNAH ALLAM: One of our staff members said, “Oh my Goodness! You have to see this.” And everyone kind of gathered around the television and we just could not believe what we were seeing.
We’ve always seen clips of insurgent videos. We’ve seen people making pretty outrageous statements on television here, but we have never seen anything that broadcast step-by-step attacks on U.S. troops, the bloody corpses of American soldiers. There’s a whole sniper montage.
I should point out that I think all of them are attacks in the military target. They don’t show any civilian casualties. That’s why they consider themselves a legitimate form of resistance.
BOB GARFIELD: But it’s also explicitly anti-Shiite,
HANNAH ALLAM: Yes, absolutely. They refer to the Shia-led government here as the Safavid government, a reference to a Persian dynasty that ruled Iraq long, long ago and they say that this is just the new version of that dynasty, and we think the Persian intrusion or incursion into Iraq is just as dangerous, if not more, than the U.S. presence here.
BOB GARFIELD: And how do they do this? They’ve been shut down, and yet they’re still broadcasting by what means?
HANNAH ALLAM: They have six correspondents roaming the country, presumably Sunni territory, in a satellite truck, and they beam that up. It’s distributed by Nilesat, an Egyptian-owned satellite distribution company, so it appears not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: Now they have said that their popularity has actually soared now that they’re pirate broadcasters. Is there any way of knowing whether that’s true?
HANNAH ALLAM: It’s certainly gotten a lot of attention. Every time I go into the cafeteria at our hotel, the staff is watching it, and they quickly change it when people come in. People in their homes are watching it. I’ve gotten lots of text messages from Iraq friends who say “Oh my goodness! Turn it to al-Zawraa. You won’t believe what’s on it now.” Sunni web sites, message boards, a lot of college students and bloggers, people have mentioned it, for sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there’s a new twist to the pirate version of al-Zawraa, and that’s English language reports. What’s that all about?
HANNAH ALLAM: I’ve never seen anything like it. This was, to my knowledge, one of the first insurgent videos made in Iraq that was recorded in English. In fact, there were Arabic subtitles. And in it, an insurgent group called Al-Rashadeen, they’re speaking directly to President Bush. They tell him, Mr. President, we have a strategy, we have a vision, we can see the future.
AL-RASHADEEN INSURGENT: You have to admit, things are falling upon your head in a mysterious way. First, it was the mass destruction weapons scandal. Then Abu Ghraib. Then the secret prison scandal. And, last but not least, spying on Americans. But believe me, there will be nothing like this one.
HANNAH ALLAM: They make fun of U.S. forces for raising the age of enlistment to age 39. They – what’s next? Are you going to recruit nannies? They make fun of “Mission Accomplished" and they show Bush in his flight suit, and go on to also speak more to an American audience, saying, you know, basically, why are you putting up with lies like Abu Ghraib, secret prisons? He’s even spying on Americans.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you suppose that this kind of taunting is deemed as raising the ante here?
HANNAH ALLAM: I think they’re saying, we have the technological ability to get our message out, just like you do, and in fact they show teams of insurgents sitting around – it looks like a corporate boardroom, except everyone’s in ski masks. But they have laptops in front of them. If their faces weren’t covered you’d think it was a meeting of accountants.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the other side of the political equation. Last week, a State broadcasting signal was overtaken by Shiite militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and the government shrugged and said we were powerless to stop this.
How much propaganda is coming from the Shia side?
HANNAH ALLAM: Well, the Shia political factions have their own stations here. Farhat is probably chief among them. But increasingly, we’re seeing pro-Shia, anti-Sunni sectarian propaganda on even the State-run station, which is called Iraqiya. And in recent days we’ve had factions loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shia cleric and commander of the Mahdi Army Militia, basically take over at Iraqiya.
And when I say "take over," it’s not like they storm in with guns and commandeer the station. Their power is such that they can simply say, we’re going to run this program live from Sadr City, and that’s what happens.
It doesn’t matter that it was not part of regular programming or that it messed up the lineup. What they want, they pretty much get, and the government basically turned a blind eye to the sectarian nature of what was being broadcast.
BOB GARFIELD: As you know, over the past months, there’s been enormous amount of debate as to whether what’s going on in Iraq is a civil war, whether it’s an insurgency and so forth. Does it matter, in Iraq, what this thing is called, as much as it seems to matter politically here?
HANNAH ALLAM: No. not really. If you ask pretty much anyone on the street, they’ll say yes, of course, it’s a civil war, and has been for some time. People see bodies piling up every day.
But definitely among Iraqi politicians, obviously they don’t want to use "civil war." It reflects poorly on their leadership.
BOB GARFIELD: Hannah, as always, thank you so much for joining us.
HANNAH ALLAM: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Hannah Allam is Middle East bureau chief for the McClatchy Newspaper Group.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up next, another insurrectionist station makes waves.