Iraq’s media feed on sectarianism, ISIS violence
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.