The Media in Iraq

Fostering Democracy through Commercial Advertising

In order to be able to produce unbiased reporting, media outlets need to be independent. But in Iraq, most of the media outlets are funded interest groups who exert a massive influence on the way they report. Friederike Ott reports

A white Hyundai speeds along the dusty road leading to the international airport in Erbil. Thomas Koch is in the passenger seat. He is exhausted. The past four days have been akin to a marathon through the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq, and he hasn't slept much. His mission is to bring more democracy to Iraq.

In pursuit of this goal, he has drunk many cups of chai, smoked countless cigarettes, visited mayors, passed heavily guarded checkpoints, and told people over and over again that he wants to help make Iraq's media more independent; that in order to achieve this goal, companies really have to advertise on or in Iraqi media; that he wants to build a bridge. Thomas Koch (59), an experienced media expert from Dusseldorf, wants to be that bridge.

A completely new situation for Iraq

Thomas Koch (photo: Friederike Ott)
Bridging the gap between Iraqi media and advertising customers: German media expert Thomas Koch in front of the weekly newspaper "Awene" in Sulaymaniyah

​​To date, Koch has worked exclusively in Germany. He made sure that companies place their adds in the right media, namely in the media where their advertisements will reach people who are interested in their products. German media know exactly how many people read and watch what. The money they get from their advertising customers allows them to be largely independent in their reports. The situation in Iraq is entirely different.

"The system that is so familiar to us is completely new there," says Koch at the start of his trip. "There are very few companies that are placing advertisements, but lots of media." It is estimated that there are 200 newspapers and magazines, 60 radio stations, and 30 television channels in Iraq. Most of them are funded by parties or other interest groups, who then exert a massive influence on the way that medium reports.

In order to support the independent media, Koch and Klaas Glenewinkel of the non-profit-making organisation Media in Cooperation and Transition (MICT) set up the media agency Plural Media Services. MICT specialises in media development in crisis regions. The organisation has been active in Iraq since 2003, for example training local journalists.

Glenewinkel is familiar with the Iraqi media market; he has been monitoring it closely for many years. He knows that any media that want to be independent generally struggle with financial problems. This is the case with Awene, a weekly newspaper in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya.

Hope that the market will grow

Newspaper stand in erbil (photo: Judith Pfannenmüller)
Media diversity without diversity of opinion: If Iraqi media became more independent they could become a pillar for democratic development in the country

​​When Thomas Koch comes to visit with his team, editor-in-chief Asos Hardi is sitting at a dark wooden desk, drawing almost incessantly on his cigarette. He speaks about his newspaper's financial problems: despite the fact that it received support from non-governmental organisations in Europe, the situation is awful. The paper's sports publication, Awene Sports, has already had to cut the number of its pages. Hardi hasn't been forced to let anyone go yet, but he has asked his staff to save on electricity in order to cut costs. Circulation is in decline.

At the moment, Koch doesn't have much to go on except hope. But at least the market is growing: more and more companies are entering the Kurdish market, including a growing number of international groups such as Lufthansa, Siemens, and BMW. The reason is the relatively stable security situation in the Kurdistan region. Erbil, the most important city in the region, is growing rapidly. It is no wonder: the investment situation is a dream and the regional market is, as yet, largely untapped.

According to Koch, companies that come here should really be willing to pay money to advertise on such a burgeoning market. Moreover, the Kurdish government, which has so far provided financial support for all media, just recently abolished all its subsidies, which means that the media now need new financial backers more than ever.

Just at the right time

On the second day of his trip, Koch visits a major television station, one of the few in Iraq that is already partially funded by advertising. The station has a marketing agency that produces advertisements for companies that run on its channel. The agency's room is darkened and the air smells of cigarette smoke. Thomas Koch explains to the marketing manager that it is important to know the station's range. The marketing manager raises an eyebrow; he doesn't know the station's range. What he does know, he says, is that the television channel has been number 1 for six years.

photo: Friederike Ott
Life after government subsidies: Asos Hardi, editor-in-chief of the weekly "Awene"

​​Eventually, the two men agree that the station needs more advertising because it is experiencing financial difficulties. Some entertainment programmes have been cancelled; budgets have been cut. If someone wants to place advertisements, they have to know how many people watch the channel," repeats Koch, who knows exactly what international companies want to know before they place advertisements. The marketing manager looks at him blankly. "We don't know how many people watch us," he says. "We just know that we are popular."

The white Hyundai reaches the car park in front of the modern airport building. Thomas Koch is satisfied with the way his short trip to Kurdistan has gone. He has just received a phone call from a pharmaceutical company that would like to run an advertisement campaign on television with the help of Plural Media Services. "We've come at exactly the right time," says Koch. "The media is facing a revolution."

He gets out of the car. For Koch, Kurdistan is the first step. He would like to cover the rest of Iraq in the near future and Sudan and Afghanistan at a later stage. He grabs his suitcase and throws a last cigarette onto the dusty street before disappearing into the bowels of the airport.

Friederike Ott

© Deutsche Welle/ 2011

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan editor: Lewis Gropp

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