Iraqi MPs gave the political press corps awards for the first time recently. But almost immediately other journalists protested, saying, as elsewhere in Iraq, the awards were based on sectarian or ethnic quotas.
Recently the Iraqi Parliament decided to give out awards to journalists in the press corps in Baghdad. For the first time they gave out awards to five of the around 70 accredited journalists working the government beat. However almost immediately the awards created an uproar, with a number of dissatisfied journalists holding a sit-in in Parliament's press centre for more than an hour. Basically, they complained, the awards had been made as a result of each organisation's sectarian allegiances rather than any journalistic merit.
Critics say that the media organizations that were honoured were only given prizes because of who owned them or what they stood for.
The prize winners were Iraqiyah, the TV channel that is part of the Shiite-Muslim-led Iraqi government's public broadcaster, the Iraqi Media Network, Rudaw, the Iraqi Kurdish media organisation owned by the region's ruling Barzani family, Al Sharqiya, the TV channel owned by Iraqi media tycoon Saad al-Bazzaz which is generally acknowledged as the voice of Sunni Muslim opinion in the country, and the Afaq TV channel, which is owned by the mainly Shiite Muslim Dawa political party and known to be closely affiliated to one of its leading members, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
There's a long history of bias in the Iraqi media – although all kinds of media institutions flourished after 2003, many of them were funded by, or wholly owned by, political parties or owners with a political, sectarian or ethnic axe to grind. Although there are media organisations in Iraq who pride themselves on balanced, unbiased coverage, they are far outnumbered by others who display their bias unashamedly or who are part of the so-called “shadow media”, who are less obvious about their unbalanced outlook but who clearly have red lines their reporters cannot cross.
One of the local journalists working in Iraq's Parliamentary press corps, Mahdi Karim, points out that it is important to honour Iraqi journalists. “But there were a lot of problems with the process,” he says. “Because decisions were not based on efficiency or professionalism, rather they were based on the desire to please the powerful and to cater to sectarian and ethnic biases.”
Another member of the Iraqi press gallery, Walid al-Sheikh, praised the sit-in, saying the prize giving was yet another indication of how the mentality of all Iraqis, and certainly of Iraqi politicians, had changed.
“The thinking and the political culture has been shaped by sectarian bias and now everyone simply accepts it,” argues al-Sheikh, who's been working the Parliamentary beat for the past four years. “Even journalism is viewed from this perspective. Experience, service and professionalism don't seem to count. That's why these rewards for the media were inherently sectarian. The sit-in was good because it highlighted this deterioration in political awareness.”
“But we cannot simply reward every journalist – that would make the whole process meaningless,” says Mohammed Abu Bakr, who heads the media relations department inside Parliament. “And we did base decisions on quite specific criteria.”
The selection committee inside the media relations department based its decisions on things like letters of recommendation from institutions where the journalists worked, or from their employers. Journalists are also supposed to sign attendance sheets and the department was able to see how committed correspondents were to the job of political reporting.
There were also other reasons. For example, Abu Bakr says, Afaq was honoured because of the work of one particularly distinguished female reporter. And Al Sharqiyah was awarded a prize because the channel had worked hard to broadcast almost all political activities; a similar reason was behind the prize given to Iraqiyah. “And Rudaw was honoured because of efforts made by its correspondents covering Parliament over the past three years,” Abu Bakr told NIQASH.
Media should be judged on professionalism and integrity, notes another local journalist, Ziyad al-Ajili, who also heads the Iraqi media advocacy organisation, the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory. “This kind of discrimination will create even more biased media and rewarding journalists like this makes other members of the media exaggerate their nationalist or sectarian feelings in their work. Journalists are being rewarded for abandoning their professionalism.”