Financial Crisis Kills Off Iraqi Kurdish Media, Endangers Fourth Estate
Before the current crisis, some omedia in Iraqi Kurdistan had been thriving. Now, as circulation and revenues drop, they're struggling - and endangering any gains made by independent media over the past decade.
Kurdish readers are running out of money to spend on newspapers.
The publisher of the Hawlati newspaper, generally regarded as the first independent newspaper in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, can demonstrate how tight things are financially – he needs only show off his back page. It is almost empty of advertising except for one promoting the newspaper itself.
“Before this financial crisis, companies were racing to get a space on this page and we were selling the space at very high prices,” says Hawlati's publisher Tariq Fateh, referring to the financial problems the northern region is facing due to what has been referred as Baghdad's financial blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan. “Now nobody wants to advertise.”
Over the past three years Hawlati has typically allocated three out of its 24 pages to advertising. However this has recently halved, with only one and a half pages now carrying ads, most of which are more like classified ads – things like court announcements and lost and found notices – that the newspaper cannot charge as much for as commercial advertising.
“We're trying to minimize our costs – both for staff and for printing,” Fateh says. “We need IQD70 million [around US$56,000] to be able to continue publishing the newspaper but we are not making that much, which means we are incurring a loss each month. In the past we used to sell 3,000 copies but today we're only selling 1,500,” he adds.
Sources of revenue for newspapers and magazines in Iraqi Kurdistan are hard to find anyway. On April 21, Iraqi Kurdistan's journalists and media celebrated the 117th anniversary of the first publication printed in Kurdish – this was in Cairo. Since then, Kurdish language publications have multiplied massively. Still, in Iraqi Kurdistan today, much of the local media – even the larger and more professional organisations – can be considered partisan, as they're often funded by political parties or actors with political affiliations. It's even more difficult for independent media.
Since political tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan began, during the last administration headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the semi-autonomous region, with its own military, parliament and judiciary, has not received it's disputed share of the federal budget. The new Iraqi government, headed by Haider al-Abadi seems to be creeping toward a negotiated compromise with the Iraqi Kurdish government in Erbil, but the lack of cash has seen a slowdown in what was supposedly on its way to becoming Iraq’s “new Dubai”. Now neither the government nor the private sector have many commercial activities or developments they want to, or can afford to, advertise.
The Committee on Culture and Media in the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament is well aware of the impact the financial crisis is having on local media, says Zana Abdul-Rahman, a member of the Committee. “That is why we have held meetings with many of the editors-in-chief of the most prominent newspapers here,” Abdul-Rahman says. “It's true there is a financial crisis but one shouldn't sacrifice everything because of this crisis. Newspapers and freedom of opinion is as important as bread – so we should support publications until they can overcome this challenge,” he suggests.
In fact, Abdul-Rahman was critical of the fact that the local Ministry of Finance had cut the budget that was meant to go toward buying local newspapers.
Obviously local journalists are feeling the impact, says Karwan Anwar, the secretary general of the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate, although he doesn't have any accurate figures on how many publications might have closed or how many journalists might have been made redundant.
“Some channels are now trying to put into place temporary contracts,” Anwar told NIQASH. “In these the journalists agree that their salaries be treated like debts and that they will be paid when the media organisation finds a way to resolve the financial crisis. Some organisations have not paid their journalists for months.”
The financial crisis obviously also has an impact on locals' disposable income and how much they have to spend on magazines and newspapers.
Sankar Ali, who owns a print distribution company, Bilaf Baq, that is based in the city of Sulaymaniyah, estimates that around 18 publications have been forced to close because of the financial crisis. Ali believes that a lot more have closed in Iraqi Kurdistan but that he only has figures for those distributed by his company.
“There used to be a high demand for those magazines before the financial crisis,” Ali says. “But they were unable to keep publishing because of lower sales.” And although Ali couldn't talk about sales figures for other publications he confirmed that sales for newspapers and magazines they were still distributing had also seen significant decreases.
Editors of local publications acknowledge that circulation has decreased. However many of them also still insist that they continue to sell a reasonable amount.
“The impact of the crisis on our sales is a decrease of around 30 to 35 percent,” Ahmed Mira, the editor of Levin magazine, told NIQASH. “But our sales are still reassuring compared to a lot of other publications.”
Local editors have been using all their contacts and networking to try and get advertising. “The lack of advertising in local printed press must eventually lead to the closure of all newspapers,” Mira says. “We are just one among many.”
To cope, Levin has tried to reduce expenses – the number of staff has been reduced as have the magazine's pages. They have also tried to cut printing and other costs. And now they believe that Levin should be able to keep publishing until the end of the year, should their plans work out. At that stage though, Mira says that if things have remained the same they're going to need some kind of bail out either from the government or from other media-supportive organisations.
Hawlati, and publisher Tariq, are in the same position. Before the crisis Hawlati was looking to expand into a radio station and satellite TV channel. Now the organisation is just trying to avoid closure.
Tariq says he is waiting until November 2015 to decide the fate of his newspaper – that month Hawlati will be 15 years old and, he says, he will be forced to either close it or sell it. Tariq admits he had actually had similar thoughts last year. “But I kept on despite the pressures and the crisis,” he says. “If I had closed it then maybe I would have spared myself the trouble of waiting. Then I'd be feeling much more relaxed today,” he confesses.