Iraq’s media feed on sectarianism, ISIS violence

Friday 12/06/2015
A confusing forest

BAGHDAD - Amid the sectarian war and violence by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, freewheeling media have emerged in Iraq and quickly climbed the ladder to be­come a focal point in Iraqi politics.

While some Iraqis depend on the estimated 200 print, broadcast and online media outlets for informa­tion, others consider them tools of lawmakers, religious leaders and cabinet officials to settle scores or make political gains.

Even wealthy business tycoons with specific agendas, such as hit­ting at the government or under­mining a certain cleric or politicians, have joined the chorus, directing their messages to influence public opinion.

For the Iraqi cabinet of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, however, the media are sources of trouble for highlighting the numerous setbacks suffered by his government in the war to end ISIS’s control of large ar­eas of his country.

“In Iraq, there is a satellite TV channel for each citizen,” joked high school teacher Ahmed Talib. He was referring to the numerous satellite channels with diverse programmes on politics, economics, entertain­ment, education, religious and chil­dren’s cartoons and talk shows.

“It’s as if all the TV channels we have are working hard to confuse the Iraqis and have them doubt the truth,” Talib added.

To Nuha Darwish, a journalism professor at the University of Bagh­dad, “the audiences are right”.

“The mass media, including satel­lite channels, failed to adhere to the rules and ethics of the profession,” Darwish told The Arab Weekly. “Be­sides, they neither have a philoso­phy, nor a clear vision within the scope of modern media democracy.”

“These channels are competing with each other on the one hand and with the government on the other to bring unsubstantiated reporting to the public to satisfy personal agen­das, ignoring the people’s right to know and to accurate and objective reporting,” she argued.

The Iraqi media have forced themselves into Iraq’s sectarianism, feeding on ISIS violence and the conflict between the country’s pre­dominantly Shia Muslims and the ri­val minority Sunnis, who see them­selves sidelined since the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the US-led war of 2003.

For example, “Sunni-dominated” channels label the Iraqi Army “the Abadi forces” — a reference to Iraq’s Shia prime minister. Others brand the army “the “Safavid forces”. The Safavid dynasty ruled Persia from 1502-1736 and installed Shia Islam, rather than Sunni Islam, as the state religion.

Such sectarian terminology is met with worse descriptions by Shia-run channels, which mock historical characters revered by the Sunnis. Amid the clash of interests, Iraqis are losing track of the truth.

“The Iraqi media scene is be­musing to a large extent,” said Ali Shalah, president of the Board of the Trustees of the Iraqi Media Net, which runs a handful of print pub­lications and TV and radios states. Most popular among them is Al Iraqiya, a state-owned TV channel launched in 2003 and focuses on po­litical programming with a massive audience across Iraq.

“There is a misunderstanding of the essence of the free media in the new Iraq,” Shalah told The Arab Weekly. He said journalists in Iraq “cannot differentiate between a re­sponsible media freedom and what is causing chaos.”

He termed the language used by some presenters on various TV channels as “too low, sectarian and racist”.

Such channels have become, he said, “part of the problem, not the solution”. Shalah, a former law­maker who headed the culture and media committee in the previous parliament, said, “unfortunately, the media terrorism could not be stopped through legislation.” He was referring to endless efforts in Iraq to restrain the media through stringent laws.

Iraq’s constitution protects free­doms of speech and expression but authorities continue to use the 1969 penal code to prosecute journalists for a variety of offences, including libel and defamation.

In 2010, the Supreme Judicial Council created a special court to prosecute journalists, despite a ban on the creation of such bodies in Ar­ticle 95 of the constitution.

A law passed in August 2011 es­tablished safeguards for free speech and provided benefits to journalists who are killed or injured. The legis­lation also eliminated a stipulation that media workers must belong to the journalists’ union to be entitled to legal protections.

But even with the regulations, media are following their own course, troubling a government try­ing to restore normalcy in the coun­try.

In late April, Iraqi Interior Minis­ter Mohammed al-Ghabban sum­moned dozens of journalists to par­tially blame them for security force setbacks amid the war against ISIS, laying bare the Baghdad’s govern­ment sensitivity to criticism.

The meeting with Ghabban, who is in charge of Iraq’s police, came after the Reuters bureau chief left the country following threats from Shia militias over an article about abuses and looting in the wake of the capture of the largely Sunni city of Tikrit.

Ghabban also put blame on the media and the way it covered the collapse of Iraqi forces in Tikrit in summer 2014 in the initial onslaught by ISIS, which now rules large areas in Iraq and Syria.

“Most of the security collapses that took place were due to psycho­logical warfare,” he told the journal­ists. “The media have a major role in creating this feeling among the people.”

For Shalah, Iraq’s freewheeling media style is there to stay, at least for a while.

“As long as there are politicians who support the violating TV chan­nels, nobody will adhere to the reg­ulations,” he said.