Formerly TBS Journal

ISSN: 1687-7721

Iraq: A Diverse Media

Issue 10, Spring 2010

By David A. Rousu

A collage of Iraqi media logos

A collage of Iraqi media logos

Iraq: A Diverse Media

In 2004, William Rugh published an influential and comprehensive study of Arab newspapers, radio and television. His book, Arab Mass Media, examines the media organizations in 18 Arab countries and places each country into one of four categories, based upon varying degrees of government influence, freedom of the press and other factors (Rugh, 25). When Rugh came out with this study, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the accompanying transformation of the media scene, was hardly a year old. Rugh separated Iraq into two time periods and classified the Iraqi media prior to the 2003 invasion as the quintessential mobilization media”, due to its complete manipulation by the government. The Iraqi media which arose subsequent to the invasion was classified as adiverse media”. However, too little time had transpired since the invasion for Rugh to confidently declare Iraq a diverse media, or discuss at great length the most successful newspapers, radio stations or television broadcasters which have emerged and dominate the Iraqi media environment today. This paper is an attempt to pick up where Rugh’s study left off in 2004, and analyze the most successful media sources in the new Iraq and effectively demonstrate that Iraq is indeed home to a diverse media” similar to those found in Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco and Yemen.

Since 2003, Iraq has moved from a media environment completely dominated by the government to one which includes sources controlled by a spectrum of players. On the eve of the invasion, the Baathist government was running five daily newspapers, four radio stations and a handful of television stations, which accounted for all of the daily sources available to the Iraqi public outside the de facto independent Kurdish region in the north (Sinjari, 479). Each of these media sources was terminated in April 2003, as Coalition forces took control of Baghdad and ended the reign of the Baath Party. In the power vacuum left behind by the removal of the Baathist regime and with the greater freedoms permitted by Coalition forces, newspapers, television stations and radio stations sprouted up swiftly all over the country. Based upon the ownership and financing of these media sources, they can all be placed into one of three distinct categories (Allen, OneWorld US).

The first type of media is governmental. Coalition forces found it necessary to communicate their policies to the Iraqi people and seek their compliance with their vision for the new Iraq shortly after the occupation of Iraq began. These media continued after the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority and are some of the most successful media outlets today. The second type of Iraqi media which has emerged is private and party-oriented. Most political parties were outlawed by the Baathist government, and when parties were created or returned from abroad in 2003 they quickly established themselves and their own visions for Iraq in the media market. The final type of media in the new Iraq is private and truly independent. These media do retain varying degrees of bias in their coverage of events, but they are not tied to the government or a political party in any major way and are, most importantly, profit-driven. For the most part, they look at Iraq and the world from a general Iraqi perspective in order to reach the widest audience possible.

Government Sources of Media

The government of Iraq currently publishes one daily newspaper, and operates three television stations and two radio stations. The fact that the government currently operates some of the most successful media in the country does not disqualify Iraqi media in general from being classified as diverse. Rugh states in his book that newspapers in a diverse press are “all privately owned” (Rugh, 87). Nevertheless, he also explains that within a diverse press, there can be individual newspapers which are strong supporters of the regime in power (Rugh, 87) and it is hard to conclude that the Iraqi press is not diverse based solely upon the existence of a handful of government media sources. If that is truly a disqualifier, what would we say about the U.S. Public Broadcasting System or the British Broadcasting Corporation? Moreover, in Morocco, which Rugh argues is host to a diverse media, the government operates Maghreb Arabe Presse (a news agency), the daily newspaper Al-Anba, and supports at least two other daily publications (Rugh, 111). Government control of a few newspapers, radio stations or television stations alone does not determine which of the four categories the country should be placed within.

The Iraqi government’s daily newspaper, Al-Sabah (The Morning), was established almost immediately after Coalition forces occupied the country. The United States government hired a contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), to establish major media outlets in Iraq. With their technology and expertise, SAIC founded the Iraqi Media Network (IMN). The Iraqi Media Network focused primarily on rebuilding Iraq’s television and radio broadcasting systems, which had deteriorated significantly during Saddam Hussein’s reign or had been destroyed in some instances during the invasion or had even been vandalized or looted in the aftermath. The IMN began to fund Al-Sabah and placed its headquarters in the former offices of the Baathist newspaper Al-Thawra (Badrakhan, 472), but in many respects the paper was an Iraqi creation. Al-Sabah’s first issue came out on May 17, 2003, but within months the newspaper experienced a dramatic shakeup which put it more under the control of Iraq’s temporary government, the Coalition Provisional Authority.

SAIC’s contract in Iraq ended in early 2004 and the Pentagon awarded a second contract in January to the Harris Corporation in order to bolster the Iraqi Media Network. The Pentagon was unhappy with Al-Sabah’s limited success, as it was unable to dominate the emerging Iraqi media scene and it became simply one of two dozen competing newspapers. When the Harris Corporation officially took over the Iraqi Media Network from SAIC in February, it sought to make Al-Sabah a permanent component of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the future Iraqi government. This aspiration became explicit on March 20, 2004, with CPA Order No. 66, which declared that the IMN was to be the public service broadcaster for Iraq. This cemented Al-Sabah’s role as spokesman for Coalition forces and for the future Iraqi government, and it destroyed any hope maintained by Al-Sabah’s staff that it might become an independent newspaper once Iraq regained its sovereignty.

CPA Order No. 66 created a schism amongst Al-Sabah’s staff, and led directly to the creation of a new independent newspaper, Al-Sabah Al-Jedid. Once the news of Al-Sabah’s fate reached its editor, Ismael Zayer, he left the newspaper with a significant portion of its staff, citing as reasons for their departure its lack of independence and the failure to take into account their ongoing desire to privatize Al-Sabah. Zayer and elements of Al-Sabah’s staff made good on their promises in May 2004 and published the first edition of their independent newspaper, contemptuously naming it Al-Sabah Al-Jedid meaning The New Morning. Since then, the newspaper has enjoyed relative success and has established offices in Baghdad, Erbil, Beirut, Damascus, the Gulf countries, London, Washington, Brussels and Amsterdam, according to its own website. It is perceived to be a fair and balanced newspaper which respects Iraq’s current political climate by addressing Iraqi affairs and those of the Kurdistan region in separate sections. Like almost all of Iraq’s newspapers though, it has been a victim of the country's ubiquitous violence. On top of this, there have been repeated attempts to assassinate Ismael Zayer, prompting him to leave the country.

Al-Sabah is currently one of the most widely read and successful newspapers in Iraq, but it has had to overcome a series of hurdles to improve its reputation, which suffered from allegations that it was a propaganda tool. From its birth, a great number of Iraqis considered Al-Sabah to be the mouthpiece of the United States and the Coalition forces. It routinely avoided publishing negative stories about Coalition forces and about horrific events which were happening in Iraq. Iraqi perceptions of Al-Sabah and the rest of the Iraqi Media Network’s programs improved tremendously however when it was placed under the authority of the Iraqi Interim Government in the summer of 2004. Despite the new-found trust which the newspaper is establishing with the Iraqi public, it is still seen by many as a symbol of the occupation. Within a three-month period in 2006 alone, two suicide bombers attacked Al-Sabah’s headquarters, killing and wounding several employees (Von Zeibauer, NY Times).

The Iraqi Media Network’s television programs have followed a path almost identical to that of its newspaper, Al-Sabah. The IMN broadcasts three channels: Iraqiya TV, Iraqiya TV2 and Iraqiya Sports TV, which I will refer to together as Al-Iraqiya. Al-Iraqiya was set up in 2003 by SAIC with the intention of establishing a 24-hour news channel in the mold of the United States’ PBS and the United Kingdom’s BBC. From the beginning Al-Iraqiya struggled to maintain credibility with Iraqis because it too was seen as a propaganda tool and a mouthpiece for Coalition forces. In fact, many Iraqis have scornfully referred to it as ‘America Television (Badrakhan, 472). Like Al-Sabah, Al-Iraqiya’s reputation began to improve after the Iraqi Interim Government took control of the IMN, but as late as December 2005 it was being accused of taking money from the U.S. military to run positive stories (Cochrane, TBS Journal). It is also still perceived to be a symbol of the occupation by some Iraqis, and their employees have suffered more fatalities than any other television station in Iraq, including foreign channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya (Cochrane, TBS Journal).

Al-Iraqiya is currently the most watched station of all domestic and foreign news networks in Iraq. This is partially attributable to the improvement in its reputation, but it largely stems from accessibility. Iraqis do not need a satellite receiver to view Al-Iraqiya, as they do with many local and foreign television stations. One study found that 93% of Iraqis have access to Al-Iraqiya, which is significantly more than for any other news channel (Cochrane, TBS Journal). Al-Iraqiya’s advantage though may not last much longer. The Baathist government banned satellite dishes, so initially Al-Iraqiya did not have to compete with the region’s established satellite news networks, such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. But ever since the ban was lifted in 2003, satellite dishes have been spreading rapidly into Iraqi homes and in the near future Al-Iraqiya’s competitors could be equally accessible.

Finally, the Iraqi Media Network runs two radio stations: Republic of Iraq Radio and Holy Quran Radio. Republic of Iraq Radio provides listeners with the news, much in the same manner as the IMN’s other programs, and Holy Quran Radio is a religious station about Islam.

The United States is not the only country to found and promote news programs in Iraq. The BBC World Service Trust, with funding from the British government’s Department for International Development, established Al-Mirbad in the summer of 2005. When Coalition forces occupied Iraq in 2003, British forces were given command of Iraq’s southern region, centered on the city of Basra. They therefore established Al-Mirbad in Basra, which has both a television and radio station. Al-Mirbad focuses on cultural and social issues, broadcasting everything from children’s shows to documentaries on architecture. In addition, all of the station’s programs are produced in Basra or the surrounding area, giving it a unique southern flair which is popular with many of the locals. Al-Mirbad's television station broadcasts for four hours a day and its radio station for eight hours a day. Unlike the CPA’s projects -- Al-Sabah and Al-Iraqiya, the BBC and the British government have been working hard to make Al-Mirbad a private, independent media outlet, reliant solely on profit. As of July 2006 though, the BBC and the British government were still working closely with Al-Mirbad to develop a dependable profit base (BBC News, “Al-Mirbad: Choice of Southern Iraq”).

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