A screenshot from Iraqi news coverage of the battle for Mosul.
While the battle for Mosul is momentous for the country’s security, it has also had an historic impact on Iraq’s media. In Iraq, most media outlets are funded by political parties, wealthy individuals or other partisan organisations; there are few truly independent outlets. But as the operation to regain control of the northern city of Mosul from the extremist group known as the Islamic State, began, all of the Iraqi media came out in public support of the operation, regardless of their political or financial affiliation.
No matter whether media outlets were Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim or Kurdish, all of them expressed the same fervour for this fight. It was not business as usual: Media outlets even praised, and expressed solidarity with, parts of the Iraqi population they might normally not have had such a tolerant attitude toward. For example, one Iraqi channel played a song in Kurdish praising the Iraqi Kurdish military.
Even the language being used was different. Iraqi broadcasters were extremely enthusiastic and they appear to desperately want to mobilize audiences to support the battle. Some of them even started wearing military uniforms on air as if they were taking off to the front line at any minute.
In this kind of situation it is very difficult to speak about anything negative. Any local reporter that talks about these kinds of events is considered a traitor to Iraq.
Programming of cultural or social shows was suspended and all efforts were focused on the fighting for Mosul. This is because the battle for formerly-multi-cultural Mosul has immense symbolic value to Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities. Additionally, Iraqis know that if the brutal Islamic State, or IS, group can be kicked out of their Iraqi stronghold up north, it will mean, in large part, an end to their presence in Iraq.
Television channels have claimed the most audience attention and have been broadcasting many more news bulletins and updates than usual. Some of the TV channels in Iraq have spent literally hours on end, on coverage of the battle, with interviews with correspondents embedded with the military, followed by discussions with local politicians about the situation in general.
The Iraqi Media Network - the state-funded broadcast network with three TV channels, including the influential Al Iraqiya channel, Al Sabah newspaper, a magazine and several radio stations – announced the formation of the National Media Coalition. This group would cover the fighting in Mosul fairly and would counter inaccuracies and rumours, they said.
The National Media Coalition stated that around 500 local journalists would participate in coverage and the Iraqi army issued instructions to media outlets as to how their correspondents could embed with troops. Some media outlets organized last minute training for staff on how to work in war zones. And by the end of the week, any TV channel that didn’t send a reporter to the front lines was being criticized by locals.
Curb side interviews, also known as vox pops, have been a favourite for those left at home. Dozens of radio and television journalists appear to have been dispatched to interview people on every Iraqi street corner as to their opinions on the fight for Mosul. A handful of radio stations set up special phone numbers so locals could call in and express their feelings about the operation.
The Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate, which looks out for the interests of media professionals in Iraq, put out a statement asking outlets to unite on this subject. “The media family in this country should adopt a unified, supportive stance on the battle for Mosul,” Muayad al-Lami, the head of the Syndicate, said.
The government-administered Communications and Media Commission, which is meant to act like a kind of broadcast standards authority, put out a similar statement, as did a number of politicians.
Unusually for Iraq, the media outlets appear to have done as has been suggested: The tone of all the reports coming from the frontlines has been overwhelmingly positive and journalists are cheer leading fighting forces, talking about how much terrain has been gained and how many extremist fighters have been killed. There has not been much concrete visual evidence of this and certainly, there has hardly been any bad news relayed home at all.
Local comedian Ahmad Waheed, as the leader of the IS group, giving a satirical speech.
“In this kind of situation it is very difficult to speak about anything negative,” one television reporter, who had to remain anonymous for security reasons, told NIQASH. “For example, we certainly cannot say anything about areas where the Iraqi army has withdrawn, or where extremists’ attacks have succeeded – even though we had heard about these things happening. Any local reporter that talks about these kinds of events is considered a traitor to Iraq.”
Another broadcast journalist embedded with the Iraqi army says, “in reality, we get very little access around the battle fronts. The security forces take us to certain places and we are really only allowed to speak about these things in a positive way”.
Then again, in times of national calamity – consider the reaction of the US press to the events of 9/11 – perhaps this is hardly surprising.
Dozens of reporters are now based in the military base at Qayyarah, south of Mosul, which has become a centre for daily press conferences. A further media centre is located in Erbil, inside Iraqi Kurdistan, where Iraqi Kurdish military spokespeople hold daily briefings.
There has been a massive influx of foreign journalists, and especially to Iraqi Kurdistan, where authorities and visa requirements are reportedly easier to deal with than those in Baghdad. As a result, some media-watchers have noted that international coverage is weighted towards the Iraqi Kurdish military, when the Iraqi army are doing just as much – some say more - of the fighting.
The media team working for the oft-controversial Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who are quite far from present fighting, have also tried to ensure they don’t miss out on international coverage, proving it by posting a short video on their Facebook page featuring some international correspondents who were travelling with them.
Iraqi and Kurdish journalists have complained that military media offices give the international visitors preferential treatment. “The foreign correspondents get to go to the army barracks and the frontline but we are left behind,” complains Ammar Hameed, an Iraqi reporter.
In the meantime, back on television, in the breaks between news updates there was lighter fare too, but also mostly Mosul-related. There have been plenty of patriotic and nationalist songs and videos and even poetry.
There was also a bit of comedy. A number of media outlets spent time producing Saturday-Night-Live style clips and satire at the expense of the IS group. Two actors donned IS outfits and made jokes about the advance of Iraqi forces toward them. Local comedian, Ahmad Waheed, dressed up as the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and gave a speech about tolerance. “Our situation has changed. So I call upon Iraqis to be respectful of the cordial, neighbourly relationships between themselves and our pacifist country [the Islamic State],” the fake al-Baghdadi preached. “And we ask the Iraqi government to convene a joint meeting where we can discuss how to combat terrorism. Oh, and we would also like to take part in the political process, based on Iraq’s sectarian quotas,” the satirist concluded.