Control over the content of a television station in Mosul has become a sensitive issue for the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division who is running that part of northern Iraq.
The station, which broadcasts as many as five hours a night to the city of 1.8 million, lost its cameras to looters and was forced to turn to outside programming sources to fill its broadcasts. That content now ranges from Arab-language al-Jazeera news reports, talks and speeches by local personalities and interviews with the newly elected mayor to U.S. military announcements about avoiding unexploded shells or arranging plans for the wheat harvest.
Fearing that local politicians and returning exiles have bullied their way onto the air, often to promote themselves and sometimes to incite violence, the 101st commander, Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, said yesterday in a telephone interview from his Mosul headquarters that he is considering putting a U.S. Army officer and a translator in the station to monitor what goes on the air.
"I want to be certain that nothing is shown that would incite violence in a city that was extremely tense when we took over two-and-one-half weeks ago, and which still has folks who are totally opposed to what we're doing and are willing to do something about it," Petraeus said.
The problem U.S. forces in Mosul face over media control is one that will have to be dealt with in all major Iraqi cities in which radio and television stations were previously run by the now-deposed government. Petraeus said the problem of the local station's content had been raised with him only recently, but that he nonetheless had ordered its manager and employees be paid.
He said he has been working with lawyers and others to determine the circumstances that would keep programming off the air. "Yes, what we are looking at is censorship," he said, "but you can censor something that is intended to inflame passions."
Part of his concern arises from his experiences in Bosnia, where local television was frequently used to inflame people.
One of the individuals who had bullied his way onto Mosul television was an exiled Iraqi who had tried to set himself up in office in mid-April as Mosul's mayor. Calling him "a rogue political operator," Petraeus said the city during that time was in turmoil and that in one week 14 people were killed.
In the days before May 5, when local leaders met and selected a new mayor and council for Mosul, this individual "took a lot of airtime, announcing who was taking part and emphasizing his own possible role," Petraeus said.
It was that situation that triggered the decision to do something about the station, he said.
A news story published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal described Petraeus as having ordered the Mosul station "seized." He denied having given such an order, saying the station is still operating and no U.S. military officer has been assigned to work there as a monitor.
The station's offices are in a building within a compound already guarded by U.S. troops because it also houses a battalion headquarters, he added.
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