Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Small Bribes Keep Iraqi Press Sweet

So-called rewards can vary from cash and prepaid phone cards to lavish meals in restaurants.
By Kareem al-Qassimi
The headquarters of the journalists’ union in the Iraqi province of Babel was the scene of heated debate recently as a member defended himself against accusations by his colleagues that he took a bribe to cover a government official’s visit to a distant part of the country.



Such charges against journalists are common, as is the practice of giving them bribes – referred to euphemistically as “rewards”.



The accused man denied the charge, saying the money was shared with colleagues and was meant to cover their transport and food.



“We went with the official to a remote, risky area, where some sleeper cells of al-Qaeda can be found,” he told a panel of his peers. He swears he was surprised when the official handed him a number of packages of 25 US dollars each.



The panel were dubious and threatened to inform his employer, a threat that did not seem to worry him much. Perhaps they were used to it.



Bribery is widespread among journalists in Iraq – and Hilla, capital of Babel province, is no exception.



The average monthly salary of a journalist working for one of the town’s radio stations or newspapers is 170 dollars. Many reporters are freelancers, with little guarantee of regular work. As a result, there’s a tendency to regard the rewards as a perk of the job – a form of compensation for their precarious profession.



The type of bribes journalists receive can vary from cash and prepaid phone cards to lavish meals in restaurants.



Ali al-Sabak, a journalist and a lawyer who has worked for the media since the 1990s, says these gifts are a tradition with deep roots in the Iraqi press.



The difficulty of living under the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime started it off, says Sabak. Back then, it was seen as an acceptable assistance for struggling journalists.



Ethical questions did not arise as journalists would write what pleased the authorities, irrespective of whether they had accepted a kickback or not.



"But things changed after the fall of Saddam as dozens of Iraqi satellite channels and hundreds of newspapers and radio stations have emerged, which made [bribes] even more widespread,” Sabak said.



He accused some Iraqi officials of encouraging the practice.



“Officials nowadays prefer the journalist who accepts their gifts and rewards in return for overlooking the negative side, and they certainly don’t like the one who publishes their scandals,” Sabak said.



Sheikh Jafar Abbas, a Shia cleric in Hilla who issued an edict against bribery, stresses that such payments are illegal.



“It is not the official’s money; it belongs to the people. So it is illegal to spend it on gifts and unfair purposes,” Abbas said.



Morality ought to rule out such payment, says a female journalist who admits to occasionally taking money. She says she earns less than 100 dollars per month as a journalist, but claims it does not influence her reporting.



She says all her colleagues accept kickbacks while covering official activities such as conferences.



One journalist said he and some colleagues recently attended a reception at which an official handed 200-dollar rewards to each of them. He said that on a previous occasion the same official had offered journalists 300 dollars, “It sounds like the financial crisis has affected that official, so he decided to cut his budget.”



In some cases, say journalists, they are regarded with suspicion for refusing bribes - officials infer from this that their reports will be prejudiced against them.



One journalist said it was embarrassing to receive gifts but a refusal would be seen as a deliberate insult to the official offering the kickback.



The head of the Babel journalists union expressed concern about colleagues taking gifts of money from officials, describing it as “an insult to the journalist, a kind of irresponsibility and a waste of public funds”.



The association has urged the local authorities to crack down on the alleged practice.



Ohio University mass communications teacher David Mould wrote a commentary on the subject after United States forces were accused of making payments to Iraqi journalists in 2005, allegedly aimed at getting them to publish positive stories about the American military in their respective newspapers.



“The challenge in Iraq is to change the journalistic culture. Our government should focus on building independent media, training journalists and promoting ethical practices. In the short term, covert payments may increase the quantity of ‘good news’ in the Iraqi press, but they perpetuate a corrupt journalistic culture,” wrote Mould.



Kareem al-Qassimi is an IWPR-trained journalist in Hilla.



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