Iraq’s volatile politics, punctuated by a hard-fought national election and protracted negotiations over a new government, dominated the headlines in 2010.
IWPR Iraq senior media adviser Hiwa Osman analyses the performance of Iraq’s party-driven media over the last 12 months.
How would you assess the Iraqi news media’s coverage of politics this year, and how would you compare it with coverage of the parliamentary election in January 2005?
I would say that the coverage was a reflection of politics itself. The media is split along the same political lines that exist in today’s Iraq: sectarian, ethnic, pro- and anti-government. Most media outlets are backed by political parties, and covered events from their own perspective.
This hurt Iraqi citizens, because in order to get a complete picture, you need to rely on more than one news outlet. The media in Iraq still has not made the transition to become a service provider rather than a mouthpiece and a propaganda tool.
That said, there has been some improvement - the coverage was slightly more mature than in 2005. In 2005, the outlets were not as diverse and there were fewer of them, especially television stations. The bias back in 2005 was much clearer and more blatant.
The Iraqi media covers politics almost exclusively, ignoring most other news besides sports. Why do you think this is?
Most media is funded by political parties, not the private sector, and our most powerful political parties still carry their legacy from the past. They were born as opposition or revolutionary groups and used their media outlets as propaganda tools against the regime. While the regime is long gone, their philosophy – that the media should serve party rather than public interests - remains unchanged.
For them, media is a tool in their political campaigns, agendas and aspirations. As a result, the media only concentrates on politics, and the parties think they’re getting their money’s worth by funding coverage of their news. Of course, promoting a party’s agenda provokes a reaction from rival party media, so we end up with non-stop political coverage.
As a result, we end up with uninformed citizens. For example, several months ago a toddler died while in a day-care centre in Erbil. A child’s death in a day-care during office hours raises 100 questions that only the media can raise, and they need to provide answers for the public. The media didn’t cover the case at all. I only found out through a friend who lived close to the school. The media should have investigated the case and interviewed the education and health authorities.
This aspect of non-political reporting is being touched on slightly by the online community and social networking. Just the other day, an IWPR journalist posted a picture online of an electricity pole that was placed right in the middle of the street.
But news organisations barely use social media. Why?
Internet penetration in Iraq is very low - although even with this very low internet penetration, something like 90 per cent of internet users in Iraq access social media.
But social media hasn’t found an identity in Iraq yet. In some countries, it’s used to report; in others it’s used to organise, mobilise; in other places it’s just for networking and entertainment. Iraqis simply haven’t figured out how social media can be used here.
However, quite a lot of parliamentary candidates did try to use social media this year, especially in Kurdistan where the penetration is higher.
Polls indicate that Iraqis do not trust the media. What can Iraqi news organisations do to build their credibility with the public?
First of all, they should separate news from opinion. This is a symptom of a partisan media because political parties believe the media’s role is to air their views.
Editors also need to apply professional news judgement by choosing stories that impact on the public, rather than just running stories about leaders’ meetings and press conferences where nothing substantial is said. This would be a step towards having a media that functions as a service provider as opposed to a propaganda tool.
The other thing that can be done is to encourage the private sector to invest in media. If it is an honest investment, and isn’t just a business front for a political party, the media will be in a better position to serve the public.
Iraq’s next election is slated for the spring of 2011, when citizens in Iraqi Kurdistan will vote for local representatives. What lessons can the Kurdish media learn from the coverage of the 2010 parliamentary elections, and how can they better serve the public?
It is unlikely that the media in Iraqi Kurdistan changed anyone’s mind about who they wanted to vote for in the last election. The challenge for them this time is to influence voters by better informing them.
The only way they can do this is if they act as good information service providers. They can still have their opinion section, but they should separate this from the news. The biggest lesson that they can learn is that they should strive to provide quality information, as opposed to being a propaganda tool.
Having said all this, it’s unfair to place the blame entirely on the media. A country’s media is a reflection of its politics, and Iraqi politics are currently divisive and brutal. And in order to create an environment conducive to professional, free and responsible media, legislation is required guaranteeing both the right of information to the public and guaranteeing freedom of expression.
The right to freedom of expression and the press is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, with the caveat that it “does not violate public order and morality”. In order to create an environment conducive to professional, free and responsible media, we need legislation.