From the very beginning of its prominence in Iraq, it has been very obvious that the leaders of the extremist group known as the Islamic State are aware of the importance of propaganda and the effect of the media on their activities and followers. A lot of people in Mosul, the city that the extremist group took over last June, even credit the rout of the city's security forces back then to a particularly cunning use of propaganda.
As British analyst Charlie Winter writes in a recently published report on the Islamic State, or IS, group's media strategy, the extremists' “strategists rightly deem that a good image not only brings symbolic influence, but tangible power too”.
This is true not just outside of Iraq, but inside the country too. And another thing that is certain is this: The traditional Iraqi media is lagging behind the efforts of the Islamic State group.
Since the very first days of its control of the northern city of Mosul, which it managed to take over last June, the IS group set up what may best be described as “media hubs” in busy neighbourhoods in the city. These are small kiosks that show films and other material that the IS group has produced – subjects include battles that the group says it won, public executions and other punishments meted out to locals as well as speeches by the IS group's leaders and senior members. The media hubs also broadcast new statements, orders and instructions from the IS group. At the beginning of the month of Ramadan, the IS members opened new media hubs in a number of popular spots around the city.
One example: On a road leading into the neighbourhood known as New Mosul, in the west of the city of over a million, the IS group's media office have erected a large screen and loudspeakers. In front of the screen there are chairs scattered around.
Saad Mohammed, a resident in the area, says that teenagers and younger people often go and sit at these media hubs, watching the films of battles and executions. After each show is over, enthusiastic audience members can ask for a digital copy of the films or pictures they liked the most. They can then take these clips and images and put them on their own phones or computers so they can watch them again. In Mosul, it is possible to access the Internet now but it is very slow and coverage is very bad.
“After each film, people talk about the power of the IS group and how strong it is and how legendary its fighters are,” Mohammed told NIQASH. “This is exactly what the IS group want to achieve. They want these feelings to take a hold in people's minds here.”
In this way the IS group is achieving two major aims: Influencing the people of Mosul, persuading them that it's “caliphate” will continue to exist and encouraging dissemination of its propaganda around the city and perhaps further, all over the world.
The IS group also uses other methods to get its message of power and superiority out, through speeches at mosques, military parades and through broadcasts on the Al Bayan radio station, launched after it took the city over. The extremists are also extremely effective at getting their message out to the rest of the world via social media.
There are also other places where locals inside the city may get information from. Today in Mosul, the northern city that the IS group has controlled since last June, there are two major satellite TV channels that locals can watch. There is Al Mosul TV, which is part of the Al Sharqiya media network owned by Iraqi media tycoon, Saad al-Bazzaz. Al Sharqiya is generally acknowledged as the voice of Sunni Muslim opinion in the country and is broadcast from out of Dubai and nearby Erbil. The second channel is Ninawa Al Ghad – in English, Ninawa of Tomorrow - owned by Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Ninawa. The station was moved from Mosul to Erbil, the capital of the nearby, semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, shortly after the fall of Mosul to the extremists.
Both of the TV channels focus on the misdeeds of the IS group, its harassment of locals, conditions for displaced Iraqis and how long until Mosul is liberated from the IS group. However when one looks more closely at the programming and the kinds of information that the two channels offer as part of their anti-IS stance, it is also clear that they're making a lot of mistakes. Sources are not identified or trustworthy and often information is broadcast without any sort of visual “proof”.
Iraqi media – and indeed, almost all foreign media – are also very far from the realities of life on the ground in Mosul. They must depend on journalists who live outside the city and often they get the facts wrong. Some Iraqi media outlets also demonstrate bias in their reporting – media in Iraq is often partisan as it is owned or funded by political parties or those with a political or social agenda.
Before last June when the IS group took over there were an estimated 250 professional journalists in Mosul. Now around 150 of them are living outside of the city in various locations around the country while the rest are trapped inside Mosul. Some of those have been killed or arrested by the IS group and others are not working at all anymore, unemployed and inactive inside the city. A handful have been drafted in to cooperate with the IS group in disseminating the extremists' version of events.
This is why people have lost any kind of trust in local media outlets when it comes to Mosul, says Jamal al-Badrani, a journalist originally from Mosul but now living in nearby Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. “It is the lack of trustworthy sources and the lack of any journalists really working inside the city,” al-Badrani explains.
What is disturbing in Mosul now is how a large number of locals will comment on any news they hear or see. They tend to dismiss everything as lies or propaganda. “And especially when it comes to news about preparations for the liberation of Mosul and the expulsion of the IS group,” al-Badrani says.
That is why the IS group's propaganda has also somehow gained more credibility among some groups in the city. The IS propaganda addresses locals directly and uses pictures or videos of things that appear to really have happened, rather than hyperbole.
All of this is also why social media has become so much more important. Pages administered by Mosul journalists, from both inside and outside the city, have more credibility than many of the established media organisations who are not as close to the situation. The social media pages are also seen as the best option for contesting the IS group's own propaganda.
Most recently though, another type of media has proved particularly good at combatting the IS message. One of the most momentous developments on local television in the past few weeks in Mosul has been the show, Selfie. It's a 45-minute long satirical show by Saudi comedian, Nasser al-Qasabi, that screens on satellite channels. In the show al-Qasabi makes fun of things like the infamous “sex jihad” and the men and boys who join the IS group. While many in the Arab world have been upset by al-Qasabi's antics, its had a positive impact on the people of Mosul – and as yet IS members have not tried to prevent locals in Mosul from watching it.
“This drama has become popular and everybody is speaking about it,” Issa Shihab, a Mosul resident, told NIQASH. “But only among friends and relatives - they talk about the scenes and compare the show with the actual practices of the extremists in Mosul. They make fun of them and laugh. Basically,” Shihab continues, “this series shows the IS group as they really are and as we really see them. It reflects what we feel and it says what we want to say. People here want to watch this show, they feel that, by watching it, they are protesting the IS group's presence and its crimes.”