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Fourth Estate Or Fan Club?
In Election Run-Up, Iraqi Media Drops Any Pretence Of Neutrality

Mustafa Habib
Election campaigning has seen Iraqi media well paid. But in return, the illusion of neutrality has gone. In a bad sign for democracy, outlets have focused on scandals rather than policies, supporting whoever pays.
10.05.2018  |  Baghdad
Neutral zone? A range of different TV channels in Iraq.
Neutral zone? A range of different TV channels in Iraq.

The elections have been a godsend for Iraqi media outlets. Over the past few months, there have been advertising budgets and money to spend on local newspapers, TV channels, websites and radio stations. There isn’t really much of an advertising industry in Iraq so usually the amount available to local media is non-existent or inconsequential.

But currently media outlets are revelling in the attention and money being paid to them by both politicians and parties.

Some outlets were ready for the electoral gold rush. During the election campaigning period they have introduced features like high definition television systems, which broadcast better images. Others introduced new television shows, mostly in the form of talk shows. Websites were revamped and some news agencies hired dozens of new staff members, including journalists. Newspaper editors who had been worrying about the fact that they were might have to close breathed a sigh of relief and sent out the next edition.

Media who supported Shiite Muslim militias did things like going to the family homes of the men who had been killed fighting the Islamic State.

At the same time, the new funding also revealed exactly whose side most media outlets were on. Some outlets claim they are independent but once the political party funding started to come in, they quickly aligned with their backers.

Presenters and reporters were quick to publish embarrassing or scandalous videos of their funders’ opponents, or criticize the opposition parties, or come up with dated government documents that supposedly showed how corrupt every other politician was. When television reporters were sent out to interview locals on the street and solicit their opinions on what was wrong with local politics and what they wanted from their representatives, only the views that fit with the funders’ policies and platforms made it to air.  

The broadcast partisanship came in many other forms too - and included tactics such as only inviting guests to talk shows who would criticise the channel’s opponents, ignoring the activities of the current government and only using statements from MPs who had oppositional opinions on important subjects such as rapprochement with the Gulf states, the US presence in Iraq and privatizing the electricity sector in Iraq.

All this meant that most local journalists were covering political conflicts, rather than dissecting the actual policies of parties, which have helped voters make an informed choice.  

There were several topics that almost everyone covered. Logistical issues around the elections were a favourite subject and the preparations being made by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, which is tasked with overseeing the elections, were outlined in depth; this included security, organisation of polling and voter registration.

 

A newspaper and book seller in Baghdad.

 

The controversy around the fact that Shiite Muslim militias - they had fought the extremist Islamic State group and become heroes to some and of concern to others – were competing in elections as a new political body was another hot topic. Media who supported the Shiite Muslim militias did things like going to the family homes of the men who had been killed fighting the Islamic State, or IS, group – there they showed the poor conditions in which some of the families were living and criticized the Iraqi government for not doing more to help the former fighters’ relations.  

The media who did not support the Shiite Muslim militias – and this included some Shiite channels and outlets too – responded by openly talking about how some immoral Shiite politicians were trying to use the militias to win Shiite votes. These same outlets often take the line that the militias should not be involved in politics and some even say they should not be considered an official security force.

The conflicts that played out in the different media outlets reflected the conflicts that are playing out among the politicians who fund them. 

The Shiite versus Shiite media coverage reflects the same political schism that is dividing Shiite Muslim politicians in Iraq at the movement.

Another issue that many outlets covered was corruption. Iraqi media outlets reminded voters about politicians who had been accused of corruption in the past and also made new accusations themselves, some of which were unfortunately fabricated, based on false reports on social media.

The standoff between the Iraqi government and the authorities in the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan was also widely covered. Depending on who was backing them, some outlets accused politicians of making concessions to the Kurdish, others said that certain Iraqi politicians were trying to deprive the Kurds of their rights as citizens.  

One of the most striking things is how the conflicts that played out in the different media outlets reflected the conflicts that are playing out among the politicians who fund them. Previously Shiite Muslim media outlets tended to stick to one, unified Shiite Muslim line, and the same was true for Sunni Muslim-funded and Kurdish-funded outlets.

But since there has been infighting within the different larger, sectarian and ethnic groups, this has also become apparent in the Iraqi media. Even though the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is a Shiite Muslim, several Shiite media channels – such as Al Ahad, Al Itijah and Al Ishraq, all of which are owned by the militia groups – spend a lot of time criticizing him. Even the Afaq channel, which is apparently owned by al-Abadi’s own party, has taken sides in the struggle between himself and his party colleague and rival, Nouri al-Maliki. They prefer to promote al-Maliki.  

Interestingly enough several Sunni Muslim TV channels have been more neutral when it comes to covering al-Abadi, which perhaps reflects al-Abadi’s role as the head of state and the Iraqi army, widely credited for ridding Sunni-majority areas of the extremist IS group. The Sunni Muslim channels have not shied away from taking adversarial positions when it comes to their fellow Sunni Muslim politicians though.

 

 

The Iraqi Media Network has been kinder to the prime minister and current government, by covering state activities. But this is what the network is also often criticized for. The media network, known as IMN, comprises television, print, web and radio, and is supposed to be a neutral state broadcaster. But historically it has also paid more attention to the current leader of the country. It’s a historical problem for the broadcaster, which has virtually been controlled by some of Iraq’s past prime ministers.

To combat those accusations of partisanship, the IMN appears to have been trying hard, by starting new programs for the elections and inviting a broad mix of candidates on them. Nonetheless that doesn’t appear to have made Iraqi voters trust the IMN any more than they did before.  

Despite the fact that the country’s Media and Communications Commission, responsible for monitoring Iraqi media, put out a statement calling upon local media to abide by ethical and professional standards during election campaigning, stressing that Iraqi voters needed to be able to make informed choices, it does not appear to have helped. Only a handful of media outlets appear to have managed to remain less partisan; these seem to have broadcast political and campaign events ranked by the seniority of the politicians and their importance to the country, rather than making decisions based on which party campaigners belonged to.  

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