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Interview with Senior Iraqi MP
'This is Iraq's Last Chance'

Cathrin Schaer
NIQASH met with Maysoon al-Damluji, head of Iraq's Parliamentary Committee on Media and Culture, to discuss biased journalists, stolen antiquities and what problems can be expected after the extremists have left town.
2.04.2015  |  Berlin
The delegation of Iraqi politicians and senior media managers visited a TV studio in Berlin last week.
The delegation of Iraqi politicians and senior media managers visited a TV studio in Berlin last week.

A lack of opportunity for independent financing means that a lot of Iraqi media, diverse as it is, has never been what one might consider balanced or unbiased. It's well known that there are political or religious affiliations in play in the local press. Now thanks to the current security crisis, which has deepened already existing ethnic and sectarian divisions in the country, the tone of reports has become even more sectarian in nature over the past few months – everything from political imbalance to sectarianism and racism to out-and-out misinformation and propaganda.

An independent public broadcaster in Iraq would doubtless do a lot to remedy this – however at the moment, the country's public broadcasting network, the Iraqi Media Network, or IMN, which controls influential outlets like Al Iraqiya TV and Al Sabah newspaper, is not considered particularly independent.

Government-funded and monitored through the government-administered Communication and Media Commission, or CMC, the Iraqi Media Network has mostly been considered a mouthpiece for whomever was in power. However ambitious new legislation is planned that would see the CMC and what has optimistically been described as “Iraq's version of the BBC” become more independent and, hopefully, representative of all Iraqis, no matter what sect or ethnicity.

A delegation of MPs and senior members of the Iraqi media were in Europe recently, researching examples of best practise. Among them was a senior MP from the opposition Iraqiya party and former Minister of Culture, Maysoon al-Damluji, who currently heads the Media and Culture Committee in the Iraqi Parliament. Al-Damluji met with NIQASH in Berlin to discuss the planned legislation, why, even when people are dying, culture is important and what she believes will happen after the extremist group known as the Islamic State have been pushed out of the country. Al-Damluji also explained why she believes this is truly Iraq's last chance to be a united nation.

NIQASH: How has the security crisis affected the Iraqi media in general, since extremists from the Islamic State group took over territory last June? Has it become more dangerous for Iraqi journalists?

Maysoon al-Damluji: There is the Islamic State and then there are the militias, and then there are outlaws, and they all kill journalists. But the real, ongoing danger is institutionalised.

NIQASH: Could you explain?

Al-Damluji: We have a body called the CMC in Iraq. It was founded by an order written by [US Civil Administrator] Paul Bremer in 2004. The CMC is not only monitored by the Culture and Media Committee, it's also monitored by the Works Committee.

The CMC interferes. They have a very strange set of rules and they interpret Bremer's orders whichever way is useful to them. They are politically motivated and they seem to target journalists they don't like for political [or other] reasons.

NIQASH: What does your committee want to do about this?

Al-Damluji: The challenge is twofold: We need to put together a decent law and then we need to convince all the political blocs to vote for the changes. The plan is to work on a means of financing independent of the government, that can be controlled by Parliament. And we are also looking at the selection of trustees – the way it's done at the moment, they are appointed by the Prime Minister and we want it to be more reflective of society. We need a more independent IMN that voices the real concerns of the people, not just whoever in is charge of the government.

That's why we are in Berlin right now. It's very difficult. We have a law that came through the government in 2012 and it basically puts the IMN under the control of whoever is in government. Which is totally against what we, as a Committee, believe in.

NIQASH: How has official Iraqi media – like the IMN - reacted to the current security crisis?

Al-Damluji:Unfortunately what's happened is that they are using the same naive propaganda tactics that the Baath regime [headed by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] also used, like having silly songs against the Islamic State group. That's how they deal with it - instead of fostering real, intellectual debate on all sides, or listening to all sides; that just doesn't happen.

NIQASH: So would you say that there's a “government line” that Iraqi media are sticking to?

Al-Damluji: Not really. There are attempts to stick to one line but it's not really working. Because I tell you, there are number of political parties that are not happy with this situation either, even among the Shia parties themselves.

NIQASH: Speaking more generally, how has the security crisis affected the media scene overall? It feels like there is more inflammatory language around, that seems to be based on the country’s deepening sectarian divide.

Al-Damluji: Yes, that is absolutely right. It is mainly the networks that were already sectarian. Now they have an excuse. They're more confident.

I think there was more diversity previously. Now obviously everyone is against the Islamic State group, nobody likes them. But in the past, the real concerns of real people were expressed in the media. Not terrorists, just ordinary people. You don't get this any more. Now it's all just about the war on the IS.

NIQASH: Is it possible to stop this kind of thing? Should you even want to?

Al-Damluji: It must be [stopped]. There has to be an end to this kind of discrimination. For instance, the Yazidis [an Iraqi ethnic group] have had the worst year - yet in most [Iraqi] media networks you find nothing about the Yazidis. Because they are not Muslims and they are not Christians and they have no real political power.

NIQASH: There's been a lot in the media about how the Islamic State uses the Internet to recruit people and also to spread propaganda. Does that worry you at all?

Al-Damluji: There was a bill in the last Parliament about Internet crimes but we put a stop to it [Editor's note: Parliament voted against it because it was considered too broad and could have led to the law being used against political opponents]. But because there is not an Internet law the courts now go back to a 1969 law. So now we're pushing for a new Internet crimes law in order to stop the courts using the 1969 law.

We have written to the Speaker [of Parliament] saying we would like to have the first reading. But I think it will take some time. It's a very broad subject.

NIQASH: Will this affect how the Islamic State group can use the Internet in Iraq?

Al-Damluji: Well, I don't know. It's very difficult to control this and even if you managed to put a stop to it, you wouldn't be able to stop some people from accessing it.

NIQASH: Let's talk about the cultural aspect of the Committee's work for a moment. After all, as you have mentioned before, you're actually an architect by profession and everyone else on the Committee works in the media. Is culture in Iraq still important at the moment? After all, some would say: why should we care about culture when people are dying?

Al-Damluji: This makes me so angry. Killing the spirit of people, the identity of people, is not unlike killing the person. Culture is very important.

NIQASH: What are the main challenges to this aspect of your work at the moment?

Al-Damluji: The main challenge is a lack of funds. Another challenge is that many people don't take supporting culture seriously. You feel that it is a lower priority in Iraq and that is a big problem.

NIQASH: Why is it that?

Al-Damluji: I don't know why they don't care. Maybe because since 2006 the governments have been Islamist governments. And maybe they feel culture is, well, not exactly Islamist.

NIQASH: Are you able to do anything about the damage that the extremists are doing to Iraq's historical monuments and antiquities?

Al-Damluji: We are holding a kind of seminar on April 8. We are going to bring all the different international ambassadors in Iraq together because we believe that a large part of these antiquities are being smuggled - so we are going to try and find ways of putting an end to that market, with the help of the ambassadors. It's also an exercise to tell them that we do care about this issue.

NIQASH: Earlier you said that your Committee was only four months old. But you also say you've made some progress. Judging from your experiences so far, would you say that Parliament is regaining some of the power that was taken away from it during the last government under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki?

Al-Damluji: I think so. I hope so.

NIQASH: You lived out of Iraq for a long time, before returning in 2003 to become part of the political process. You've obviously seen the country change a lot since your return. What are your thoughts on the current situation?

Al-Damluji: I hope we will be able to defeat the ISIS and go back to normal. But I personally believe the situation in Iraq will not be any less complicated after ISIS. It will be more complicated. We have the militias and the popular army [those who volunteered to fight the extremists] and they will go back home and raise havoc. We will have new political leaders: Whoever is fighting on the front lines now will feel that they should replace the current leaders of the country's Shias.

And the Sunnis have their own set of problems. Tribes have been divided in half by this, some were with ISIS and some were not. There is a lot of internal fighting among the Sunnis. And the Shias. And even the Kurds.

There is a feeling in Iraq that this is our last chance, that we have to come together. Otherwise Iraq will be split.

NIQASH: So you think the average person in Iraq does want the country to stay together?

Al-Damluji: People do want Iraq to stay together. Nobody wants to split. This is the problem. They fight each other but they don't want to split up.