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Coverage of Election Body Exposes Media Failings

Much of the criticism of the IHEC has betrayed the partisan nature of the Iraqi press.
By Mohammed Furat

From the start of Iraq’s parliamentary campaign season to the final voting results, Iraq’s official election body endured an onslaught of biased media coverage that exposed how political power struggles play out in party-owned domestic media.

Months before the March 2010 election was held, the workings of the Independent High Electoral Committee, or the IHEC, came under intense media scrutiny. The election body would soon find its mission questioned and it leaders criticised in the local press, where politically partisan news organisations scrambled to erode the group’s credibility.

To be sure, the commission’s performance raised serious questions about its integrity and its ability to carry out a free and fair election. The IHEC, which was founded in 2007 and is led by nine politically-appointed commissioners, faced allegations of bias and corruption. The commission delayed holding the election and releasing results, raising doubts among some about its performance and competence.

The accusations and issues were widely covered in the domestic and international media, but news organisations too often did not report on the commission in a fair and balanced way.

Iraq’s post-Baathist media is lively and diverse, and while there are a handful of impartial media organisations (including IWPR, which produced an elections newspaper, Metro, during the parliamentary poll), most of the thousands of outlets are financed and managed by parties or owners with political agendas.

Rather than reporting fairly and investigating the controversies – as well as covering how the IHEC operates, its budget, resources etc – large swathes of the domestic media focused on accusations and suspicions raised by officials against the commission, a pattern that allowed political agendas to drive news coverage.

The IHEC found itself at the centre of a controversy before the parliamentary poll. In October 2009, the commission chairman Faraj al-Haideri, a former senior Kurdistan Democratic Party official, was accused of corruption and questioned before parliament along with several other commissioners. Surprisingly, the hearings were not widely reported by the Iraqi media when the story broke.

The story caught on though when the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, which publishes an Iraq edition, quoted a lawmaker who claimed Haideri had received cash from Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region and the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, to buy cars and furniture for IHEC officials. Despite this serious accusation, the story did not include a response from the body or Barzani, nor did the story indicate that the newspaper had attempted to contact the commission or Barzani for a response. Both Haideri and Barzani’s offices denied the charges in interviews with IWPR.

Even though the report was weak editorially, it was widely republished by Iraqi news organisations. In stark contrast, the allegations of graft and the hearings were not widely reported by the Kurdish media, and were ignored by the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s powerful media outlets.

Haideri managed to keep his job despite the parliamentary hearings, but the criticisms of the IHEC intensified in the partisan press as the election season evolved.

In early 2010, a so-called de-Baathification initiative was launched to rid members of the former Baath party from the political process. A government committee controversially barred 500 candidates from standing in the election, bans that were ratified by the IHEC. Among them were prominent politicians, including Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, who also owns the Al-Babeliya channel.

In the aftermath of the ban on Mutlaq, Al-Babeliya launched a smear campaign against the election commission, consistently accusing the IHEC and its leaders of outright corruption. The broadsides became so intense that the IHEC announced in a press conference that it would sue Al-Babeliya for slander. The lawsuit never materialised.

The harsh condemnation in the press began to take its toll on some high-ranking IHEC officials. In the case of IHEC commissioner Hamdiya al-Husseini, the criticism came down along sectarian lines. Some local media outlets supported by members of former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqyia coalition, which included prominent Sunni candidates, charged Husseini with rigging the election to support certain Shia candidates.

In these reports, Husseini, a Shia whose family members were reportedly members of Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, was often referred to as "an Iranian agent". The most serious and unsubstantiated accusation came from an Iraqi Sunni website, Al-Rabytia Al-Iraqyia, which claimed she paid the IHEC a 500 million US dollar bribe to keep her seat. No source was cited for the claim or the exorbitant figure, and Husseini was not quoted in the report. Husseini has denied the allegations.

Husseini explained the impact of the coverage. "The media has treated me unjustly. [These reports] were crueller than the killing of my six brothers by the former regime," she told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.

As the results of the March 7 election began to trickle in, the IHEC bore the brunt of all players who were unhappy with the results and allegations rang out from all sides. The media played a key role, as blocs and leaders unhappy with the results launched attacks on the commission through sympathetic media outlets.

As the vote count continued, it emerged that Allawi’s list held a thin lead over Maliki, who only just days earlier had applauded the work of the IHEC. Maliki bitterly criticised the results through supportive media – including the state-run Iraqiya channel, which is widely considered pro-government, and demanded a manual recount. Allawi’s media, meanwhile, harped on about Maliki’s “contradictory” stances.

Al-Sharqiya, an influential private satellite channel owned by the secular Iraqi media mogul Saad al-Bazaaz, was perceived to be pro-Allawi, and aired grievances against the IHEC of his bloc and other opposition parties, including the Sadrists. In northern Iraq, Kurdish parties launched an all-out media war against the elections commission and demanded a recount in Kirkuk, where Allawi’s Iraqiya list won half of the hotly-contested province’s seats.

In the end, a manual recount in Baghdad produced nearly identical numbers to the initial results that were so widely criticised in the press. Without the damning accusations from party leaders that had driven the coverage, the IHEC would have quickly disappeared from the news.

The IHEC case raises larger questions about the Iraqi media and its coverage of the national election and politics over the last year. As a watchdog for the public, the Iraqi media had every right to raise questions about the performance of the commission and air the grievances of voters, candidates and political parties. But media outlets too often failed to seek all sides of the IHEC stories, and to impartially and vigorously investigate and verify claims against the body.

While journalism standards have undoubtedly risen since 2003, much of the Iraqi news media continues to follow the agendas of commercial backers and politicians – who, in the IHEC case, took jabs at the commission’s credibility based on how their favoured election candidates performed at the polls. This type of reporting was not limited to stories on the IHEC but affects political coverage as a whole, hurting the industry’s credibility and hindering the ability of journalists to practice independent journalism – even though many are eager to do so. [See: Journalists Decry Iraq’s Biased Media http://iwpr.net/report-news/journalists-decry-iraq%E2%80%99s-biased-media]

Now, nine months after the election, there is not a single reference in domestic media to the IHEC’s performance or its role in facilitating a new political landscape in Iraq. The country’s leaders have gone silent on the questions that were raised about the commission. Predictably, and unfortunately, Iraq’s media has followed suit.

Mohammad Furat is an IWPR Iraq local editor based in Erbil.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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