'Lebanonization' of the Iraqi Media: An Overview of Iraq's Television
The media landscape in Iraq has undergone a radical transformation since state-run Iraqi television abruptly went off air following the US-led invasion in March 2003. With no state television and the ownership of satellite dishes banned by the Baathist regime, Iraqis were, quite literally, starved for information. As a result, satellite dish sales skyrocketed in the months following the invasion, leading to one f the highest penetration rates in the world in just two years. From three national TV stations and 14 officially sanctioned Arb channels (the latter only available to a select few via card subscription in the two years before the war) many Iraqis suddenly found themselves with access to over 300 satellite channels and a handful of new Iraq-oriented networks. "These people had nothing, and now they are overwhelmed with satellite channels. It is a chance to get back to the real world," says Jean-Claude Boulos, head of Iraqi broadcaster Al Sumaria.
Today, the "real world" of the country's splintered political scene is only too well reflected in Iraq's 30-plus terrestrial and satellite channels, the layput of which increasingly mirrors the country's turbulant scene, with stations cropping up to represent every sectarian and political trend.(1)
With Iraq's TV menu growing increasingly sectarian, it is possible to draw a parallel wit Lebanon's highly sectarianized hodgepodge of channels--linked directly or loosely with political parties--which regularly report sect-specific news.(2) It is therefore perhaps fitting to speak of the "Lebanonozation" of Iraq'a media,(3) what with dozens of channels backed by politcal parties, such as the (Shiite) Islamic Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Al Furat TV and the (Sunni) Iraqi Islamist Party's Baghdad TV.
However, that said, Iraqi broadcasters have much more to contend with than sectarian rivalries. The current security situation is so bad that channels are spending up to 20 percent of their monthly budgets to protect personnel, employees are regularly unable to show up at work, and filming outside of studios has become hazardous and potentially deadly. Despite the overwhelming post-Saddam boom, the future is far from certain for media in Iraq.
Governments led the way in establishing Iraq-orientated TV channels in the post-Saddam Hussein era. One of the first channels to start broadcasting with an Iraqi audience in mind was the Iranian government-backed, Arabic-language satellite TV network Al Alam (The World), which was launched during the invasion. The channel broadcasts throughout the Middle East (bureaus in Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut) but has given special focus to Iraq by hiring anchors and reporters with an Iraqi accent. “The reason for this is very simple actually, Iran is next door to Iraq,” says Faysal Abdel Sater, director of public relations at Al Alam. Indeed, for several months Al Alam was the only foreign TV channel Iraqis without satellite could watch, thanks to the network’s transmitters dotting the Iran-Iraq border.
One of Al Alam’s stated
objectives is to “end the long-held monopoly of Western media in
broadcasting news.” But alongside Al Alam and Pan-Arab satellite
news giants Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Western powers were quick to replace
one state broadcaster with another in Iraq. As soon as Coalition Forces
controlled Baghdad, the US-funded Arabic language station Radio Sawa started
broadcasting in March 2003 along with voice of America Kurdish and Radio
Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Arabic station, known as Radio Free
Al Iraqiya initially struggled to gain credibility among Iraqis. It was regarded as the voice of the occupying forces because of its close relations with the CPA and a weekly address by US Administrator Paul Bremer. Iraqi journalists and cameramen also complained that despite the colossal amounts of money provided to contractors, little was trickling down to them. Most were kept on pre-war salaries of $120 a month rather than the $800 a month Western networks offered or a $1,000 a month private stations were reportedly paying reporters.(5)
But after initial teething problems, Al Iraqiya started gaining ground, with 50 percent of Iraqis interviewed in a February 2004 poll by Oxford Research International expressing confidence in the channel, up 11 points from November 2003. Al Sumaria’s Boulos said the now government-run Al Iraqiya (although still financed by the US taxpayer) is the most-viewed terrestrial channel, largely because it is broadcast terrestrially and available to 93 percent of Iraqis. “Al Iraqiya is better now, showing more of what is going on in Iraq,” says Hameed Alaa Hameed, a network engineer from Baghdad.
However, the supposed impartiality
of US-linked media has once again come under scrutiny following revelations
in December 2005 that the Pentagon was secretly feeding hundreds of positive
news stories, written by American military personnel and private contractors,
to the Iraqi press. US Army General George W. Casey was reported as saying
in March that the US military will continue to pay Iraqi newspapers to
publish pro-US articles, adding that an internal review had concluded
that no US laws or Pentagon guidelines were being violated by the policy,
which aims to counter what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “a
campaign of disinformation” by the Iraqi resistance.(6) Whether
the US military also is feeding stories to Iraqi TV networks is not known,
but with the freedom of print media unabashedly undermined it would seem
far from conspiratorial to hypothesize that this is happening at some
level in the broadcast media. “I don’t know if they are being
given stories, but maybe some channels are getting footage, like Kurdish
channels, as they are with the Americans,” says Hameed.
The Iraqi Media Network's Al Iraqiya was not the United States’ only attempt to counteract the popularity of Pan-Arab news channels in Iraq, or in the rest of the region for that matter. In February 2004 Alhurra (The Free One) was established, and shortly after, in April, sister channel Alhurra Iraq began broadcasting. Alhurra has had moderate success around the region, but reached into only 15 percent of Iraqi households in June 2005, according to Ipsos-Stat.
For the UK, Britain’s BBC World Service Trust joined the fray fairly late, launching Al Mirbad TV and radio in August 2005 in southern Iraq. According to Abir Awad, a project developer for the World Service Trust, the channel is to provide independent media in southern Iraq. “The media in Iraq used to be very Baghdad centric so we aimed at a regional audience,” she says. The World Service Trust is an independent charity within the World Service that has developed media in other war-torn countries such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, although Al Mirbad is the Trust’s biggest project to date. The British government’s Department for International Development is providing Al Mirbad with $11.81 million for the next two years, after which the broadcaster will seek funding from international donors and advertisers. The Basra-based channel—“the station with a southern vibe”—is managed by Iraqis and currently produces four hours of original content a day. In addition to helping establish channels, Western governments have also been working to train Iraqi media workers. The BBC and USAID have both been involved in training programs for Iraqi journalists on balance and ethics.
TV Journalism Turns Deadly
The invasion and subsequent
occupation of Iraq has resulted in the deadliest conflict for the news
media in recent history. At least 67 journalists and 24 media support
workers have been killed and 39 journalists kidnapped since the invasion.
Five of the kidnapped journalists—four Iraqis and one Italian—were
killed, and the others released. Many journalists also have been wounded
covering the conflict, as well as harassed and imprisoned by the Coalition
and Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi Media Network, which includes national
broadcaster Al Iraqiya, has suffered the greatest losses, followed by
Dubai-based Al Arabiya, with nine journalists and six support workers
By July 2004, the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission (INCMC) had been established, laying down rules and editorial standards for program content of television and radio broadcasters.
The commission, closely modeled on the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the UK’s communications’ regulator OfCom, first bared its teeth when it banned Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera for a month in August 2004 for “incitement to hatred” after broadcasting stories on the Iraqi resistance. Al Arabiya was back on air after a month, but Al Jazeera has remained blacklisted ever since. Al Jazeera’s editor in chief, Ahmed Al Sheikh, believes the decision was politically motivated. “It was a joint US-Iraqi decision. If they wanted to have reversed that decision they could have,” he says.
Al Jazeera has experienced such bans in the past in Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Palestine, but the Iraqi ban has particularly aggravated the channel. “I think the people behind the closure are those who don’t like the truth, no more, no less. They don’t like Al Jazeera,” says Al Jazeera presenter and producer Mohammed Al Bouniry. “By shutting down Al Jazeera they will have no problem to shut others down.”
However, no other channel has been banned in Iraq and other broadcasters do not share the same grievances as Al Jazeera. Al Diyar’s Al Yasiri is supportive of the commission: “We don’t have any form of censorship. At this point in time, Iraq is the freest country in the Arab world for the media.”
But Star TV Network’s
Saad Al Saraf believes the commission is not living up to its potential.
“It could be bigger and wider, and just revolves around one person
(Siyamend Othman). It has not successfully tackled issues in media bias,
such as during the elections,” he says. Indeed, there seems to be
a sort of "look the other way" approach to enforcing the commission’s
rules, such as the ban on "spreading sectarian, racial and religious
sedition and strife."
Babil TV reportedly offers programming in support of the Sunni Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and Biladi TV runs programs in support of the United Iraqi Alliance.
Al Furat (The Euphrates) is reportedly backed by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and supported the Unified Iraqi Coalition during the elections, which has the backing of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. The channel's director general, Arshad Tawfiq, was a former Iraqi ambassador to Spain and a former Baath Party official, and is now a member of the Supreme Council for National Salvation. The station opposes the presence of the Coalition forces in Iraq, and refers to Iraqis killed by Coalition troops as “martyrs.”
As desired above, the Coalition-created Al Iraqiya channel initially was lambasted as a pro-American mouthpiece, but since it was turned over to the Iraqi government is widely viewed as a sectarian, Shiite channel.
Al Bazzaz’s Al Sharqiya is considered a more toned channel, although overt support was shown for former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in the recent elections and some view the channel as pro-Sunni. An Iraqi who worked for Al Sharqiyah in Dubai, who did not wish to disclose his name, told TBS that many of the channel’s employees do not like Shiites, a bias that is reflected in the channel’s employment policies. “They kicked me out when they knew I was Shia. It is a pro-Sunni channel,” he says.
The channel was mockingly dubbed
“Al Baathiya” upon launch because of Al Bazzaz’s personal
history as the head of the Baath regime’s national news agency until
1992. Al Bazzaz is also rumored to have political ambitions and was alleged
to have received millions of dollars from the Saudi government to launch
the Iraqi Azzaman newspaper in a British high court hearing last
The extent to which sectarianism
is affecting Iraq’s media content, particularly news, was evident
following the February 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Sunni-orientated
channels such as the Iraqi Islamic Party’s Baghdad TV, which has
no correspondents in either of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala,
focused on Sunnis attacked in retaliation for the bombing, while Shiite-run
channels Al Furat and Al Iraqiya devoted coverage to the damage to the
shrine and the plight of Shiites under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Al Furat reportedly aired slogans telling Shiites to stand up for their
Paul Cochrane is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, writing on politics, media, education and business. He formerly worked as an editor at Beirut’s The Daily Star and was news editor of Middle East Broadcasters Journal. Cochrane holds a MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut and a BA in International Politics and International History from Keele University, England.
1. BBC Monitoring puts the
number of Iraqi TV channels at 27, but new channels are being launched.
The Iraqi Media Commission did not respond to emails or phone calls to
clarify the exact number of channels currently operating and how many
TV applications the commission has received. The only exception to the
analogy of Lebanonization is the armed resistance, which does not have
its own TV channel, though insurgetn groups do prouce their own video
and audio materials to post on the Internet or distribute to mainstream
media. Also, certain channels that are vocally opposed to the US-led occupation
air footage filmed by rebels, such as tapes of kidnap victims and attacks
on convoy troops.