The storage area of the Zahrat Ninawa library is more like a graveyard for newspapers and magazines. Inky papers are piled high, right up the ceiling and it is a media morgue: dead bodies - some died of natural causes, others were done for in a violent way - lie around in piles, waiting for the undertaker to give them a decent burial.
And this Mosul morgue is crowded: This is where local distributors hold last rites for the vast quantities of newspapers they are unable to sell. The newspapers end up being used as glass cleaners, table covers or for any other purpose that doesn’t involve reading. For many, including local journalists, it is yet another sign of the slow demise of current affairs publishing in Mosul, which remains one of the most conflicted and dangerous cities in Iraq.
Yet the media business has a long history in Mosul. The first newspaper in the northern Iraqi city was called “Mosul”, was published in June of 1885 and was printed in two languages, Arabic and Turkish. It was the second most popular newspaper in Iraq after the Baghdad-based publication, Zawra, which first came out in 1869.
In his book on journalism in Mosul, the late Ahmed Sami al-Chalabi said there up to 94 newspapers and magazines in Mosul until 2003. This included Iraq’s first magazine Akaleel, or Crown, published in 1902 and Iraq’s first comic, Jaka Baz, or the Chatterbox, published in 1911.
Between 2003 and 2005, after the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled former leader Saddam Hussein’s regime, a period of what can best be described as chaos in Iraq’s media followed. The number of newspapers and magazines in Mosul went up to around a hundred. However many of these were affiliated with political parties: limited numbers were published and then they disappeared altogether, along with the political parties that founded them.
According to Ahmed Ghanem, who runs the Zahrat Ninawa depository, the number of publications in Mosul has now fallen and there are around 40 newspapers still being published. But Ghanem wasn’t necessarily happy about this state of affairs. Because, as he pointed out, “there isn’t any daily newspaper. All of these are weeklies and, with two exceptions, they are not even published regularly’.
Additionally the number of newspapers being returned is much higher than the number sold. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that almost zero newspapers are sold,” Ghanem said as he organised the piles of unwanted papers he had received over the past fortnight. “Most of the newspapers only print 500 copies, at most 1,000.”
The price of the average newspaper here is IQD250 (or around US$0.21). However most newspapers don’t actually even have a fixed price – production costs are covered by the publisher or by advertisers so the cover price is not as important – and distributors can sell papers at whatever price they deem fit.
The cost of production remains inexpensive. With a few exceptions that see local journalists doing actual reporting, most of the material in the newspaper comes from online sources. Design, printing, and distribution doesn’t usually exceed US$350 per edition. And a newspaper may well have received four advertisements to publish, at a cost of US$210 each to the advertiser.
Many of the around 40 newspapers in Mosul don’t have to cover the costs of a standing business either. There is only one Mosul newspaper - Iraqion - with its own offices, printing press and regular employees. The other publications are more like phantoms, existing only on the day they get printed.
Publishing a newspaper in Mosul requires only appropriate funding, an Internet connection and nominal permission from the local government. However because the national journalists’ union requires that newspapers have their own premises, most Mosul media would violate the union’s rules.
There are currently 35 newspapers officially registered in Ninawa with six new publications entering the market soon, the director of the provincial department that oversees the state’s media, Wathiq al-Ghadnafri, told NIQASH. “And they all periodically receive advertising from the provincial department,” he explained.
Al-Ghadnafri addressed concerns about corruption in the way that the advertising was placed. “There are no specific regulations for the distribution of official advertisements among the newspapers,” he said. “But we try to distribute them fairly around various newspapers, according to our own timetable. But publishing advertising in the newspapers does not entitle us to impose any policies on the publications, nor does it oblige them to toe the government line or to avoid criticizing the government,” al-Ghadnafri insisted.
Nonetheless newspapers in Mosul compete for the privilege of publishing pictures of the head of the department that dispenses the advertising. And many journalists, editors and publishers feel certain that Mosul’s newspapers and magazines would disappear completely if official advertising ceased because there are simply no other revenue streams available to them.
Journalist Nawzat Shamdeen disagreed with al-Ghadnafri, telling NIQASH that there is actually a lot of corruption in the way advertising is placed. “There’s secret bidding [for advertising] between certain newspapers that allow them to make higher profits than others,” Shamdeen reported. And he believed this happened at the bureaucratic level of local government rather than at a senior level. “At best, journalism in Mosul can only be a temporary job,” Shamdeen said. “Newspapers disappear almost as soon as they appear. There’s no future in it.”
There are also plenty of other obstacles preventing the development of a thriving media scene in Mosul. There is no journalism course at the local university, Shamdeen noted, and the security situation in Mosul means that local journalists often have to work anonymously. Shamdeen also criticized the journalist’s union in Mosul, saying that if it was unable to protect its members, it should at least stand up for the profession.
“In order to get out of this dark tunnel, we need new investors to enter the market,” Shamdeen argued. “Otherwise, things will not change – at least, not until the city sees some economic growth.”
These fears seem legitimate. One of the only newspapers printed regularly in Mosul – called Musaliyah – has recently shut down due to poor financing, with all its employees made redundant.
“I deeply believe in the importance of local newspapers and their role in expressing the political, economic, social and cultural realities,” Ibrahim al-Allaf, a professor of contemporary history and the director of the Regional Studies Centre in Mosul, told NIQASH. Al-Allaf said he also regretted the disappearance of local newspapers such as Fata al-Iraq, founded in 1930 due to a lack of funding.
Problems for the printed press are not just pecuniary, they are also related to local culture. People just don’t seem to want to read the local papers. For example, the main newspaper distributor in Mosul showed NIQASH numbers that indicate that, Sabah, a Baghdad-published newspaper, only has 150 subscribers in Mosul. In the smaller city of Najaf, the number of subscribers is double that. A poll conducted by the Baghdadiya TV channel showed disappointing daily sales in Mosul: Sabah sells only 20 copies here per day and another paper, Zaman, sells only five.
A local correspondent for Fayhaa TV, an Iraqi satellite channel based in the United Arab Emirates, Sindibad Ahmed, tried to explain why. He said he never reads local newspapers. According to him there’s nothing worth reading in them. “And if there is nothing new, why should people pay IQD250 for a newspaper?” Ahmed argued. “Even if the newspaper is distributed free of charge, why should a person waste their time reading them? Personal and financial motivations are the only reason why newspapers are published in Mosul. In fact,” Ahmed added, “some people publish papers just because they want to be famous.”
As a result, Ali al-Daywaji, the editor of the weekly Iraqiyoun newspaper, also noted, local journalists do not publish locally. They go to Syria or to Lebanon to print their artistic, intellectual or scientific works – all of which contributes to the lack of an appreciative and educated culture in Iraq itself. In fact, Al-Daywaji advocates that the local government allocate some funds to the development of culture in the area.
In the meantime, and somewhat ironically, the same local government has recently cancelled its subscriptions to local newspapers. These had been costing the government IQD270,000 (around US$226) and there was not enough money for them, local politicians said.