Iraq’s media sector is a peculiar hybrid. The fall of Baghdad to US-led forces nearly six years ago opened the doors to a flood of new private media, the likes of which the Arab world has never seen. Within a year, several hundred print publications and dozens of radio and television stations had sprung into operation, broadcasting in Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen and even Syriac. To this day, Iraq has no substantial media licensing restrictions or any official censorship.
Paradoxically, nowhere in the world are journalists less free to practice their trade without fear of horrific personal consequences. At least 114 Iraqi journalists have been killed since 2003, most of them deliberately. There have been few credible claims of responsibility and hardly any substantive government investigations into the killings. Most victims have been targeted less in response to their own views or work than on the basis of their professional affiliations and vulnerability to attack. Last September when Al-Sharqiyah TV broadcast a special report on allegations of torture by Shiite-dominated security forces, it was not the producers of the offending program who were gunned to death six days later but a four-man crew on assignment for the station’s upbeat Dinner on Us program.
Most major Iraqi media outlets are oriented towards the outlook and interests of a single ethno-sectarian community and sponsored by partisan political or religious forces. They typically avoid overtly sectarian language, adopting more subtle cues for differentiation (for example, terms used to describe combatants). Direct calls for violence are rare in aboveground media outlets, but indirect incitement of sectarian animosity is common (for example, coverage of tit-for-tat sectarian violence that dwells incessantly on the “tats”).
Although endemic violence against journalists contributes to this state of affairs, it is a mistake to attribute partisan control of the media solely - or even primarily - to security conditions. Many respected journalists have been assassinated, of course, but so too have comparable numbers of university professors, clergymen and civil servants of all kinds. While hundreds of journalists have fled into exile and a number of leading Iraqi media outlets have even established their headquarters abroad in places such as Dubai, Beirut or Cairo, the diaspora has not produced a newspaper or satellite news station of record.
Abysmal economic conditions invite political penetration of the media. Sales and advertising markets aren’t nearly sufficient to support a profitable media sector, particularly with security conditions forcing major companies to spend 15 to 20 per cent of their budget on protection. Consequently, only those seeking political returns have an incentive to invest money in the media.
The Iraqi Media Network was ostensibly established by the US-led coalition to function as a public broadcasting service that transcends political and sectarian divisions. However, once leading Shiite parties took control of government following the 2005 elections, the IMN evolved into a quasi-governmental media conglomerate - centred around Al-Iraqiya TV and Al-Sabah newspaper - with a discernible sectarian bias.
Meanwhile, good faith efforts by the State Department and USAID to bolster the professionalism and ethics of the Iraqi media were quietly undermined by the Pentagon. As first revealed by the Los Angeles Times in late 2005, the US military paid editors of Iraqi newspapers to publish in excess of 1,000 heavily slanted articles written by US officers using Arabic pseudonyms. The most astonishing aspect of the scandal was not the breach of ethics on the part of the US military (which also paid monthly stipends to bona fide Iraqi journalists in return for favourable coverage), but the fact that a very broad cross-section of publications, including independent newspapers that had hitherto earned a measure of international respect, were revealed as willing to publish thinly disguised propaganda for a price.
This state of affairs owes much to the legacy of Baathist rule, when the government rigorously controlled the country’s media. Journalists enjoyed handsome salaries, job security and a range of social security benefits. Notwithstanding a considerable influx of exiles into the profession since 2003, the bulk of the Iraqi Journalists Union is comprised of former bureaucrats who did little real journalism until six years ago (Iraqi Kurdistan has a separate union).
In 2006, as Iraq’s newly elected government began cracking down on the media under the banner of security, the union’s leadership, much to the chagrin of a substantial minority of its roughly 10,000 members, pandered to the authorities in hopes of securing state financial benefits. More than 70 media outlets signed a pledge endorsing the national reconciliation plan of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and vowing to “disseminate news in a way that harmonises with Iraq’s interests”. Even the prolonged detention by US forces of at least a dozen journalists without charge or disclosure of supporting evidence for various periods of time (on suspicion of aiding insurgents) has not ranked high on the union’s agenda.
Today, rather than campaigning aggressively for legislation to explicitly protect the right to free expression that had been ambiguously affirmed in the 2005 constitution and replace a slew of penal statutes still on the books that criminalise free expression, the union is primarily focused on demanding tracts of land from the government, ostensibly to compensate for the hardships journalists have faced in the line of duty. Maliki reportedly pledged to grant this demand shortly before the recent provincial elections. Although it’s possible to conceptualise an arrangement whereby land grants could ease the pervasive financial insecurity of journalists working in the field and thereby strengthen their independence, this is presumably not what Maliki has in mind. Elsewhere in the Arab world, governments have used benefits such as subsidised printing and distribution services as a means of exerting undue influence over the press.
This trend is different in Iraqi Kurdistan, where journalists who report critically on the region’s two political hegemons - Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani (head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party) - have fought back against arbitrary detentions and legal harassments with some success. In the rest of Iraq, however, the mainstream media remains the preserve of the powerful.
Optimistic observers frequently draw comparisons to Lebanon, where the media are dominated by the leading political factions of each sect and offer a diverse range of viewpoints. Exposure to a rich interplay of competing viewpoints clearly has intrinsic value, even if each of the voices is unswervingly biased. This has been demonstrably true of Iraqi media coverage prior to the last few election cycles, which witnessed vigorous public debate over detailed constitutional and political issues.
Some have suggested that decades of authoritarian Baathist rule have made Iraqis discerning media consumers who are “savvy” to the effects of political propaganda. However, Iraq lacks the deep-rooted tradition of civil liberties, political pluralism and free enterprise that underlies media independence in Lebanon. Lack of state restrictions on the media is not an ingrained trait of Iraqi governance, but instead a reflection of contingent political factors subject to change.
Others fear that media pluralism serves to reinforce divisions in Iraqi society. In a provocative essay written during the early 2006 upsurge in Shiite-Sunni violence, Iraqi journalist Muhammad Sahi warned that people were starting to “adopt the political discourse of their favoured television channels”. While plurality optimists cite Lebanon as a model, pessimists brood over more worrisome parallels. In the early 1990s, Rwanda also enjoyed a media “spring” in which the country’s ethnic factions were relatively free to broadcast via radio. A few years later, what Ibrahim al-Marashi calls “conflict media” (à la “conflict diamonds”) were instrumental in inciting Hutu genocide against Tutsis.
Of course, Iraq’s higher levels of socio-economic development, education and national consciousness make the kind of eruption experienced by Rwanda unlikely. With all major socio-political forces having minimally accepted the country’s new constitutional order and committed to resolving differences at the ballot box, the greatest danger for Iraq is that Shiite, Kurdish and moderate Sunni governing elites will use their control of the state to weaken the media networks of their political rivals. This would obstruct the growth of independent alternatives, producing a multi-polar parallel to the state-media relationships prevailing in other Arab states.