Iraqi media on the move

by Anja Wollenberg, MICT [via Media Channel]

This booklet was published by MICT in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Amman under the title “Media on the Move: A Reader on Iraqi Media and Media Law” in 2007. A number of Iraqi and international experts have provided their commentaries on current draft laws and legislative Issues for this publication. The authors who contributed to the book are: Anna Zayer, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Anja Wollenberg, Ahmad Al-Rikaby, Ali Al-Awsi, Salam Pax, Sophie Redmond, Peng Hwa Ang, Douglas Griffin, Monroe Price, Ihsan Walzi, Zuhair Al-Jezairy and Volker Grassmuck. Impressions on the Media landscape in select Iraqi cities were also presented in a separate category referred to as “Regional Snapshots”. The information in this section was provided by MICT’s colleages in Iraq.

This collection of articles and interviews has come about as part of an effort to support the process of enacting media-relevant legislation in Iraq with the aim of encouraging media development within the country. Our aim here has been to provide Iraqi and international expert-commentary on current draft laws and legislative issues in this area, as well as on various aspects of media development in Iraq which are relevant to the formation of a legislative basis. The background to this initiative is the current debate over various versions of a draft law for regulating a public service broadcaster, and for establishing an Iraqi regulatory authority. In light of the increasing danger to which journalists and media producers are exposed in Iraq, and considering the spreading sense of resignation and discouragement plaguing the field, we believe the prompt erection of legislative structures, or at least the stimulation of a process which brings about such structures, to be elementary to the maintenance and improvement of what is still a dedicated drive toward open and public communication in Iraq.

Regulating Public Communication

The legal framework for media work in Iraq today is a shadowy patchwork made up of old and new provisions, all of which beg to offer when it comes to legitimacy and validity. Handling of media-relevant delinquencies such as slander, libel, disturbing the public order, and publishing of false or confidential information is - as long as parliament has not passed any new laws governing these areas - still regulated by the old penal code implemented by the deposed regime. Overriding that code, there is a whole list of CPA orders for the regulation of media work, which was passed under the leadership of Paul Bremer. These include Orders Nr 14, 65 and 66, which will retain the force of law until being replaced by “real Iraqi” laws, and which will, until then, remain ineffectual by way of their tainted origins. Parallel to those, various “Codes of Conduct” have also been issued. These were meant to serve as guidelines for journalistic work but have hardly been made known to editorial offices. In short: journalists, publishers, and editors balance their work upon the shaky foundations of possible laws, which, due to their dated, provisional, or improvised nature, invite disregard as well as abuse.

More radically than done by the power of the state, however, the scope of operation for media producers is defined by the unwritten laws of the street. A comprehensive catalogue of duties and prohibitions comes into play here; though nowhere documented, they seem to be thoroughly understood by all those involved. Even the smallest infringement presents a very real danger concerning the lives of employees and the existence of media outlets.

Development of the Media Landscape

In this thicket of conflicting working conditions, a media landscape has been forged which, through its density and diversity, continues to give credence to an existing drive toward achieving open communication, and which, on the other hand, through its selective silence, points toward a growing fear of the arbitrariness involved in both state and nongovernmental encroachments. The informational map in the center of this booklet gives an overview of the degree of presence and the locations of newspapers, radio stations, and television stations in Iraq. Among those listed, for example, are 21 Newspapers in Kirkuk, 24 radio stations in Baghdad and 21 Iraqi TV Satellite channels. There is no other nation in the Arabic region which can boast of such a high rate of productivity. That being the case, a majority of all media outlets in Iraq are operated by political parties, religious institutions, or other interest groups. Reporting is accordingly biased or often partisan. What is even more remarkable is the tendency of political parties to produce not just one newspaper or one radio station but more to combine all media tools available. Large parties such as the SIIC, the Da’wa, the Iraqi Islamic Party, or the two Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, all operate websites as well as television channels, newspapers and radio stations, attempting in this way to optimize their outreach capacities both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Parallel to the media activism fostered by political parties, the public service broadcasting sector has developed with astounding speed. The Iraqi Media Network (IMN), originally erected by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) upon the rubble left of the demolished Ministry of Information, is now managing more than 28 outlets (both television and radio). In the collective perception of the nation’s citizens, one basic function employed by the IMN is that of promoting governmental politics and presenting the achievements of government in a positive light. In general, Iraqi viewers, listeners, and readers seem to command a remarkable sensitivity to any form of partisanship, which is accepted as normalcy and taken into account when perceiving media content.

Alongside state and party affiliated station groups, a group of independent media outlets hoping for a rapid response from the market was able to establish itself and is now, despite all contradictory developments, “holding on”. In describing motivations behind the preservation of activities, largely idealistic goals are often formulated, such as “supporting the democratic process, surmounting ethno-confessional conflicts, and fostering political education and support for Iraqi citizens in these terrible times”. The interconnection of both idealistic and commercial aims and the concurrent aspiration toward independence points toward the singularity of the Iraqi situation, which, when viewed using the formulas of international standards, is only partly comprehensible.

The Contributions

Because lawmaking in Iraq can take place successfully only through due consideration of the realities there, a series of contributions to the book at hand are dedicated to various aspects of Iraqi media production and reception. It is in this context that the subject is broached by Anna Zayer (Al-Sabah al-Jadid), who informs us over the habits of Iraqi television viewers, surprising us with a number of unexpected preferences. Ibrahim al-Marashi (Bogazici University, Istanbul) and Anja Wollenberg (MICT)have engaged themselves in dealing with the relationship between Iraqi media content and the increasing violence and conflict plaguing the society. Strategies employed by the Iraqi media in taking part in escalation, on the one hand, and the resolution of conflicts, on the other, are discussed in their pieces. Ahmad al-Rikaby (Radio Dijla) reports on how the attitudes of employees at his radio station and those of the listening public have developed together over the past years, and on how he tries at his station to realize the ideals of balance and integration in forging a model for Iraqi media.

The possibilities felt and realities faced by public service broadcasting in Iraq are elaborated on in the second part of the book. Monroe Price (Annenberg School of Communication) advocates greater differentiation and realism in defining which tasks “public service broadcasters” can and should perform. Depending on the political developments to come in Iraq, it will have to be decided how relationships to the state and its possibly decentralized institutions can be sensibly shaped. In contrast, from the current and inside perspective he enjoys as a member of the Board of Governors at the Iraqi Media Network, Ali Al- Awsi (IMN) speaks about internal conflicts and developmental aims held by the public service broadcaster in Iraq today.

Although statistics reveal low levels of usage, the Internet in Iraq is of elementary and growing importance for the preservation of cross-border networking and the possibility of taking part in the international stream of information. That is why, in the third part of the book, Salam Pax illuminates the presence of Iraqi citizens and institutions on the Internet, and Peng Hwa Ang (Nanyang Technological University) argues against any blanket demonization of Internet regulation. According to him, regulation can and must be seen in Iraq as a tool with which the desired propagation of Internet usage by producers and consumers can be encouraged.

The current draft law for defining competencies and duties to be shared by an Iraqi regulatory authority facing the parliament is discussed and critiqued in the fourth part of the book. Douglas Griffin (Albany Associates) supports the proposed law on the whole but sees the need for revision in defining penalties, which, in his view, are disproportionately high. In following, Sophie Redmond

(Article 19) formulates proposals for a short and middle term provision for regulating the awarding of licenses to Iraqi broadcasters, and for ensuring the implementation of journalistic principles in the production and distribution of information.

Ihsan Walzi (MICT) reports out of Iraqi Kurdistan on authoritarian tradition and its continuing influence in the formulation and implementation of laws governing the freedoms of speech and of the press. Zuhair Al-Jezairy (Aswat al-Iraq) concludes by commenting on observations concerning the current efforts being made by the Iraqi government to link the free press to the power mechanisms involved in enforcing its politics. A lack of precision when defining what is forbidden by law belongs to the power politics implemented, as does the inclusion of encroaching limitations to guarantees of freedom, often added in the manner of a footnote (as is the case, for example, in both the old and new constitutions).

Volker Grassmuck (Humboldt University Berlin) illuminates the flexibilities of international agreements on copyright protection like the AAPAR, TRIPS and WCT and argues for a minimum level of protection in Iraq in order to avoid any stifling of education and development in Iraq.

Because the trend towards autonomy in the various provinces and cities of Iraq is also growing with regard to media development, resulting in a motley diversity of directions, we have dedicated a separate category to regional observations made by our colleagues on the ground and have named these Regional Snapshots. Impressions on media production in Mosul, Karbala, Najaf, Nassiriyah, and Baghdad are distributed throughout the book.

We have attempted to compile an array of documents which can lead to an improved understanding of the state of development of the media in Iraq and which can also be used by all those involved in the process of lawmaking – advising, writing, and observing – as a source of orientation and inspiration. We have therefore attempted, in light of this intention, to exclude general observations and, instead, to seize upon concrete phenomenon, themes relevant to practical application, and specific interrogation of problems. We thank all participating authors for their great contributions to this book.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey