independent media struggles to gain a foothold in iraq
It is two years since the newspaper al-Zaman al-Aan was shut down. Muhammad al-Rubaie, its Editor-In-Chief, still rues the day the dream ended. The paper could not attract enough advertising to cover its print
"Our aspiration, from the beginning, was to create real independent media. We realised that the quality of material, the courage in news coverage and the artistic way in which you relay your message were all of no relevance,” complains Rubaie. “There are mafias controlling the most important things needed by a newspaper: advertising and distribution."
To attract advertisers, Rubaie says, newspapers have to deal with those working behind the scenes of the newspaper industry.“These people set the rules. The adverts have to be where they want them to be. If the advertiser wants to advertise his car shop at the bottom of the front page, the newspaper has no say.
“Distributors have their own conditions, too,” he continues. “He wants half naked women on the covers or headlines about political scandals. There’s no interest in culture or real politics. Nobody cares any more.”
“Politicians sometimes promise to support newspapers that agree to publish lengthy coverage of their meetings or that promote their parties.
After two years of hard work, Rubaei was obliged to close his newspaper. He reached the conclusion that his newspaper would never attract advertisers if it did not completely change its outlook, style and values.
Faeq al-Rifaei, the owner of the independent al-Manara newspaper, is another publisher who faces similar financial problems. He too is unable to attract advertisers.
“Iraqi independent media is in a financial crisis. We need to find a way out. It’s difficult attracting advertisers and there is a monopoly in the industry held by big Iraqi TV channels and newspapers.”
The Iraqi Media Network (IMN), funded by the parliament, was founded after 2003. It is composed of a number of TV and radio channels and newspapers. The main two parties are the Iraqi Television Channel and Al-Sabah newspaper.
Al-Rifaei stressed the need for an institution capable of attracting advertisers from well established Iraqi and international companies. He thinks an institution that gathers a number of newspapers under its wing and works on their behalf would save newspapers money and make it easier for newspapers to attract advertisers.
Ziad al-Ujaili, President of the Press Freedoms Observatory, is concerned about the Network’s effects on independent media.
"It is the biggest monster swallowing up all others because it dominates private and public advertisements," he says.
Ujaili wants to see laws banning the network from advertising on behalf of the state, more active support for independent media in the country and a higher level of professional standards in the industry.
Newspapers in Iraq have a severely limited supply of private sector and international advertising. The most common adverts relate to government bids and auctions, mobile phone companies US army ads and seasons ads relating to parliament and provincial council candidates. In Kurdistan, real estate companies dominate, followed by malls and city tourism agencies.
Not only are newspapers unable to attract advertisers, they also find difficulty marketing their own newspapers and attracting readers.
“The biggest Iraqi newspaper has a very small readership and readership has also been affected by the internet. Without investment, the market will remain stagnant. We need better independent media capacity,” says Ujaili.
“Mutual blackmail” is the relationship that exists between media outlets and the political parties, according to Irada al-Jibouri, a media professor at Baghdad University.
"There is a very complicated process characterising relations between the different parties. For example, newspapers start to open some corruption files related to some ministries. Before reaching comprehensive conclusions on the different issues raised, the space that should be allocated to results obtained regarding these files is suddenly occupied by commercial ads."
"Adverts are monopolised by party newspapers, especially by the daily ones," says Saman Nouh, Editor-In-Chief of al-Ahali independent newspaper.
"Those that connected to the ruling authority, like al-Sabbah, get the biggest share."
"Nevertheless, advertising covers only around 20-30 percent of printing costs,” Nouh continues, stating that other costs are covered by direct financial allocations.
"Most of the newspapers are published for political rather than commercial reasons," he explained.
Muayyad al-Lami, the head of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, expressed regret that the state funds so much advertising and that independent institutions do not have access to that funding.
“independent institutions do not have access to this funding. Independent media does not have the financial means to pay the salaries of their employees and thus are obliged to close."
State institutions, he believes, should be neutral and “distribute ads equally among all newspapers.”
Al-Lami does not believe that a mafia controls the ad market in Iraq.
“The number of newspapers that distribute 20,000 copies or more in Iraq is very limited. Any company or institution wishing to reach people, will naturally resort to the more popular newspapers or TV shows.”
As for procedures to be taken to end this crisis, al-Lami said that a proposal will be submitted to the new Iraqi parliament “to allocate a budget for independent media institutions in Baghdad and the provinces to support them and to monitor closely the conditions in Iraq.
"The idea of forming a committee to take the responsibility of distributing ads among the different media outlets will be discussed. Advertisers will always opt to advertise with bigger media outlets, but the committee will ensure fair distribution among independent outlets," he said.
Abbas al-Yasiri, member of the trustees' board of the Iraqi Media Network, defends his network and rejects rumors that it monopolises the advertising industry.
"According to law, the network should finance itself and the current funding received from the state is temporary. Once the network can stand on its feet, it will cease to receive funding,” he claims.
"Al-Sabah newspaper ranks first among all others given its distribution volume. This is the reason why all advertisers choose it," he said, responding to claims that the newspaper’s politics helped it to receive more advertising revenue.
Yasiri admitted that he believes some TV channels and newspapers attack some political parties in order to get advertising.
This is because of the absence of competition and the absence of agreed upon prices among the different media outlets,” he says.
There are no accurate statistics on the number of media organisations in Iraq. Unofficial figures say that there are over 50 TV channels, and 200 newspapers and magazines. With all of them competing for advertising revenue, it is unsurprising that many fail to obtain the most important source of revenue and go out of business. But the government can still do much more to ensure that the playing field is balanced as much as possible to make a healthy, balanced, independent media flourish in Iraq.