Advertisers tread carefully in liberated Iraqi media market

Iraq shows the potential to develop national media of its own, Robin Hicks writes.

After a decade-and-a-half of isolation, it is perhaps unsurprising that the current hottest property in Iraq is the satellite dish.

Under Saddam Hussein, owning a dish incurred a large fine, the attentions of the state secret police, even imprisonment. But after the invasion of Iraq, they are sprouting on rooftops like mushrooms.

The satellite dish craze is the most visible sign that, even though Iraq remains an unstable and dangerous place, a media market is surfacing from the rubble.

Iraqis can now receive a number of foreign broadcasters with a footprint in the country via satellite without having to look nervously over their shoulders. BBC World, CNN and Fox News beam in from the west. Iran's Al-Alam TV, the pan-Arab news channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah and a host of political and religious groups broadcast from Iraq's Arab neighbours.

In Baghdad and other key cities, the Paris-based Radio Monte Carlo, the US-backed Radio Sawa and Radio Free Iraq can be picked up too. Internet cafes, which used to allow access only to state-run websites, are full of Iraqis thirsty for news and entertainment. The Jordanian website maktoob.com recently opened Iraq's biggest internet cafe in Baghdad.

Newspapers and magazines, along with private TV and radio stations, are springing up as the country's political and religious factions scramble to have a say in Iraq's future. Most are fly-by-night operations, which fold in a matter of weeks. However, a handful of well-organised and funded media of credible size is also emerging.

The biggest is the Iraq Media Network, run by the interim government - the Coalition Provisional Authority - so supported by the US. The CPA handed the US-based communications equipment company Harris Corporation a £96 million contract to set up the IMN's infrastructure.

The CPA hopes to develop the IMN into a "first-class integrated media network" comprising two national radio channels, two national TV stations - one news, one entertainment - and a national newspaper called Al Sabah (The Morning).

Although still under construction, the IMN is already dominant, which says a lot about the lack of competition. "The media and entertainment industry will be the last on the list to come to Iraq, when the economy shows some sign of recovery," Hani Soubra, BBC World's regional manager, the Middle East and Pakistan, says. "People are awaiting the next developments on the political scene so few decisions are being made. A few weeks ago, a DHL aircraft was hit by two surface-to-air missiles as it approached Baghdad airport. Such incidents will deter and discourage many companies outside the oil sector."

For those on the ground eager to feed the appetite for media in Iraq, cash, resources, secure distribution channels and a reliable power supply are considered luxuries. Iraq Today, an English-language newspaper launched on the day Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, is one of the few success stories.

The weekly broadsheet is positioned as an unbiased information provider for the local community. Having outlived its two English-language rivals which folded, subscriptions for the paper and its website are up, and ad revenues are growing. Even more encouraging is the news that Iraqi businesses are advertising for the first time, alongside the swell of international oil, construction and security companies.

Iraq Today's publisher, Stephen MacSearraigh, says that the Baghdad-based company is looking to secure a radio licence and billboard sites in the capital with a long-term view to developing a nationwide media network of his own.

But it won't be easy. For a start the CPA doesn't look too favourably on a title prepared to voice non-coalition opinions, and could make life difficult. Then there's the side of Iraq that's still filling UK newspapers.

"Two days before launch, our office was robbed by an armed gang who made off with money, cameras and phones. It was of some consolation that they didn't take the computers with the first issue on them," MacSearraigh recalls. Four issues later, the title shut down when funds ran dry, but launched again in July.

Publishing in Iraq is not for the faint-hearted, but there's no doubting its potential. The resumption of trade with the west, the infectious growth of its neighbours and, of course, its oil reserves, could turn Iraq into a Middle Eastern economic powerhouse. Assuming the wealth is distributed among Iraqis, its population of 26 million will become valuable to advertisers.

Although no research has been done on the current size of Iraq's advertising market (the Pan-Arab Research Centre, the Middle East's most reliable source, wouldn't even hazard a guess), MacSearraigh believes it is too small to sustain even a single UK newspaper. But this too could change quicker than many think.

PepsiCo recently announced it was re-entering Iraq after a 14-year absence.

It has secured a production and distribution deal with a local bottler and Coca-Cola is reported to be looking to do the same. Once both are there, they will inevitably use advertising to compete with each other and the anti-US cola brands such as the French-owned Mecca Cola and Iran's Zam Zam.

The tobacco industry, and Philip Morris in particular, is said to be keen to talk to Iraq's smokers, while telecoms and food companies are also making noises. But with scant research on Iraqi media or consumers, it's difficult to know where they'll start. There are no agencies there to help them yet, and how western brands choose to communicate with the country's politically and socially divided people is perhaps the most crucial question of all.

For media owners, advertisers and their agencies winning the trust of people who have been living under a despotic regime for so long will take much longer than the time it takes to open a Baghdad office.

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