Media and Freedom of Speech in Iraq

From Dictatorship of Opinion to Polarisation

The situation for the Iraqi media changed completely after the fall of the Ba'athist regime. Iraqi journalist Ahmad al-Saadawi outlines the latest developments

An Iraqi at a newsstand in Baghdad (photo: AP)
Many newspapers and magazines have been launched since 2003 – but the Iraqi media are highly polarized

​​Under the Ba'athist regime the media functioned as a mouthpiece for the authorities; all newspapers, magazines, TV and radio were controlled by the government. Access to other Arabic or international media was extremely limited, particularly during the 1990s when, due to the pressure of international economic sanctions and a strict government agenda, living conditions in Iraq deteriorated appreciably.

Shortly before Saddam's fall Iraq seemed virtually isolated from the rest of the world; almost no-one there had access to Arabic or world-wide journalism, particularly reports on Iraq. This situation was compounded by the mediocre efforts of media employees, whose work suffered from a lack of competition. Equally, journalists' room for manoeuvre was very limited. Most intellectuals avoided this are of work, fearing they would be forced to be exploited within the regime's media discourse.

Even the quality of academic training in media studies gradually sank thanks to the general demise of education. There were no curricula, no clear support of talent and outstanding work in the subject. And there were no opportunities to gain practical experience of work in radio and TV. One graduate of the academy for fine arts, who loves working in television, told me that during his entire four-year period as a student he didn't see a single film or TV camera:

"We never once took part in a real shoot; we became film and TV directors who only had theoretical knowledge. We knew nothing about significant developments in this field over the last twenty years."

"New Freedom"

The big change to the Iraqi media landscape came with the "new freedom". In the wake of this buzz-word countless newspapers, TV and radio stations were set up, and many intellectuals wanted to work in these new media. Now almost every writer and intellectual is working in some form or another for the media.

Thanks to the "New Freedom" magazines with differing editorial allegiances now sit alongside each other on the newsstands. This freedom has also allowed quality, professional newspapers to appear, as well as publications better described as tabloid journalism.

The election results from February 2005 on the front page of an Iraqi newspaper
Iraq's media are now diversified – and Iraqis are now confronted with the challenge of sifting through the flood of information

​​With the opening up of the country to satellite transmission and the opportunity to access the internet, Iraqis are now not only confronted with the challenge of delivering information; they face the problem of sifting through the flood of information for what they want to know, and verifying their finds.

With over three years media experience behind it, through its various particular affiliations the industry now replicates the conflict between current political rivals, and the fighting between armed militias.

Media professionals, intellectuals and politicians are engaged in extensive debates about the subjects to be reported in the Iraqi media, and the limits to freedom of speech which, as if self-evident, is seen as an irrevocable right, and as the basis for the development of media and education in the country.

Limits to freedom of speech

Over the previous two years there have been various incidents highlighting the issue of what constitutes freedom of speech and what its limits are. For instance the Baghdad offices of the TV station Al-Jazzeera were shut down by the Iraqi government after the station was charged with inflaming the problems in Iraq through its reporting, and of promoting an atmosphere of provocation conducive to terrorism.

This accusation was also made against the station Al Arabiya, whose office was also closed temporarily on several occasions.

Some observers saw this as a breach of civil liberties, of the right to express opinion and exchange information. Others however saw it as action entirely necessary for the protection of freedom in Iraq.

The real problem facing the Iraqi media however is polarization within its own structures, which mirror the splintered political landscape of Iraq. With one or two exceptions, the most popular media in Iraq are currently all produced by organizations with obligations towards a particular party or religious group.

The fact that the right to free speech is enshrined in Iraq's new constitution, and that this is emphasized tirelessly by the government, does not alter the realities confronting independent journalists.

Killed for their point of view

It is not that official stipulations make research into government institutions difficult, or that journalists fear the disapproval of the relevant politicians; the opinions, and the positions taken by some journalists and media professionals do not always conform to the line taken by particular armed political groups.

Iraqi newspaper-readers in Baghdad (photo: AP)
Caution forbids Iraqi journalists from expressing their opinions freely, Ahmad al-Saadawi says

​​Several Iraqi journalists have been killed over the past three years due to their opinions or because of their religion. In some cases they simply worked for an organization an armed group took exception to. Many journalists therefore approach their work with trepidation, constantly exercising caution. They see the state as neither in a position protect them, nor to guarantee the right to free speech provided by the Iraqi constitution.

Censorship through fear

The result of their fear is that Iraqi citizens are denied any reports on the armed militias, which certainly does not mean that these militias don't exist, and does nothing to help deal with them. Instead the problem is suppressed and cannot be discussed publicly.

It seems that the diversity of forums and the expanded opportunities for work has not achieved much for Iraqi journalists. As long as their work is made problematic, they are subject to serious risks, their lives put in danger, and caution forbids them from expressing their opinions freely, good journalism remains impossible.

The solution to this problem is the biggest challenge facing everyone working in the new Iraqi media, if it is to continue developing in the future.

Ahmad al-Saadawi

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

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