Media rhetoric differs from one Iraqi satellite station to the other and even sometimes within the same channel, making it difficult for the Iraqi audience to comprehend the channels’ logic. By examining media coverage of the recent ‘Operation Knights Assault’ in Basra, one can detect some of these sudden shifts and conflicting rhetoric of Iraqi media which often leaves the most modest of Iraqi citizens deeply perplexed.
We will first analyze the rhetoric of independent al-Sharqiyah channel, looking at the background of its sponsor and manager Saad al-Bazzaz. Al-Bazzaz started his career as a story writer. At a later phase, he drew closer to the Baath regime and chaired the Iraqi Cultural Center in London, considered by many Iraqi intellectuals as ‘created to monitor Iraqi voices in the Diaspora.’ Later, al-Bazzaz became editor in chief of ‘al-Jumhouriyah,’ a government newspaper directly supervised by the presidential palace. He continued to hold high positions until he became the personal secretary of Uday Hussein during the invasion of Kuwait in 1991. In 1992, Al-Bazzaz left Iraq quite suddenly, becoming an oppositional figure.
Al-Bazzaz launched al-Sharqiyah channel in April 2004, a year after the collapse of the former regime. He has chosen a secular and Baathist, pan-Arab rhetoric for the channel and most of its journalists were part of Saddam Hussein’s media machine. By broadcasting a number of successful social, human and comedy programmes such as “Saya Wa Surmayah,” which provided poor Iraqis money to start commercial activities, the channel attracted many viewers. However, the political programmes of al-Sharqiyah, the way it formulates its news and its focus on certain issues and neglect of others raise a number of questions. In its headlines the channel emphasizes violent acts. It concentrates on failures made by the government, no matter how insignificant, and disregards its positive achievements. Those watching the channel from outside Iraq would think that the security situation is unbelievably disastrous. And when it broadcasts advertisement calling on Iraqis to unite, it displays on the upper side of the screen a banner saying “paid advertisement” as if it wanted to release itself of any responsibility related to such a cause.
Before the military assault in Basra, the Mahdi Army was labeled an "outlawed militia." When state forces attacked the Mahdi army in “Operation Knights Assault” and in subsequent attacks, al-Sharqiyah started to shed tears for the group calling it a nationalist group which the government wants to silence because it calls for the end of occupation. As a result viewers feel that the channel is not only against any act taken by the government, no matter how right or wrong it is, but that it is also against the political process as a whole.
A close look at another satellite station, ‘al-Rafidain,’ close to Sheikh Harith al-Dari, leader of Iraq’s Association of Muslim Scholars (AMSI), reveals another striking shift in rhetoric.
Before the Basra events, when sectarian killings were frequent in Baghdad, the channel viewed the Mahdi Army as an organization funded by Iran to achieve Iran’s interests and to brutally attack Sunnis. However, following recent events, the channel changed its rhetoric in support of Muqtada al-Sadr and against the government.
This shift in the channel’s rhetoric reveals that it does not have a clear vision of events, and it does not have a long-term strategy in dealing with the conflict. The channel still insists on describing victims of bombings as "dead people" rather than "martyrs," a term with completely different connotations in the Arab and Islamic culture.
Moreover, alongside its nationalistic language, al-Rafidain uses pan-Arab rhetoric. It gives Palestinian news the same space as Iraqi news, especially regarding political analysis programs. It often tries to draw a link between the Palestinian cause and the conflict in Iraq. It hosts pan-Arab analysts, worshipers of late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who believe that the mythical dream of unifying the Arab world is still possible. Certainly, when it speaks about Iraq, the channel uses a hostile rhetoric towards most Iraqi political figures, labeling them agents and Savawites (Shiites as labeled by Sunnis), saying that Iraq has been stolen from the Arabs.
A third channel, Iraqiya, literally reflects the government view, but it seems more ‘self-conscious’ than it should be. When Basra was burning in battles led by the government against a party known even to the most naïve Iraqi citizen, the channel did not use the name of the party, calling it the “outlawed group,” while exaggerating the achievements made by army and police forces. Iraqiya belongs to the Iraqi Media Network (which was founded by the CPA in 2003 as Public Service Broadcaster).
For viewers, the way the channel covered the event suggested that the army entered Basra without any resistance from the Mahdi Army. Given the open broadcasting space and the flow of information from Iraqi and Arab channels, Iraqiya sings solo its own tune in praising the government. Examining news headlines of the channel since the day of its launch, one notices that its management has a tendency to exaggerate government achievements. Since the day it was launched the channel has displayed banners on the bottom of the screen counting the number of terrorists killed or arrested by the government. If one began to count the numbers one would probably discover that it exceeds the total number of terrorists all over the world and maybe even that of the Iraqi population!