Iraq: Ten years without a ministry of information

The vibrant media scene in two war-torn countries faces challenges

The World Today
Published 5 October 2012 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ
A TV satellite dish sits next to a makeshift home in Dora, Iraq. Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

A TV satellite dish sits next to a makeshift home in Dora, Iraq. Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

It is almost a year since the last US troops pulled out of Baghdad, so can Afghanistan learn any lessons from the state of Iraq’s media sector?

Certainly there have been changes. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis lived on a diet of tightly controlled state TV and radio. Satellite dishes were banned and the only alternative sources of information were a handful of Westernfunded Arabic-language medium wave radio stations.

Post-war reconstruction created a new mould for the Iraqi media. Two speedily drafted orders by the Coalition Provisional Authority which ruled from 2003-4 opened the door to a free press. The first dissolved the Ministry of Information in favour of an Ofcom style regulator, the Communications and Media Commission, while the second saw the state media reincarnated as a public service provider, the Iraqi Media Network.

With satellite dishes flooding in, everyone soon had easy access to countless new Iraqi TV and radio channels, as well as pan-Arab satellite channels and the internet.

Yet a decade on, Iraq’s media is still not performing the role envisaged for it, that of providing information, holding officials to account and supporting the country’s faltering steps towards democracy.

It continues to mirror the fractures in Iraqi society, forming a patchwork of politicized TV channels, radio stations, newspapers and websites that largely support a partisan, ethnic or sectarian stance.

Channels come and go depending on financial backing, while the sources of such patronage remain murky. Rumour often points to Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one hand and Iran on the other. This is unlikely to change as international funding winds down. It is unlikely that Iraqi broadcasters can survive on advertising revenue alone and those prepared to fund them will expect output to toe their line.

Media freedom is as much about the maturity of politicians, journalists and audiences as it is about institutionbuilding and legislative frameworks. As the removal of overt state control was imposed rather than organic, tensions continue in the new system: all post-war Iraqi prime ministers have continued to view the Iraqi Media Network as an organ of state rather than a public service broadcaster. As such it is expected to show the government in a positive light.

State interference is increasingly apparent. In the past year, the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, reported 31 cases of newsmen being beaten by security forces, 65 instances of them being arrested, and 43 cases of restricting their movement. The observatory claims that the presence of a camera is treated little differently to that of a car bomb by security forces.

A number of draft laws before parliament threaten to make things worse. One proposes life imprisonment and a fine of 25 million to 50 million Iraqi Dinars (£13,000 to £26,000) for those who destabilise the country by questioning its unity and independence online. A Facebook comment expressing support for federalism would appear to be sufficient to merit a life sentence.

The two orders issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority failed to gain any lasting legitimacy through Iraqi law, but the continuing existence of the media commission and the absence of a Ministry of Information remain an example of a new media world order in the Arab world.

Iraq offers a valuable perspective on which media interventions have worked and which haven’t. Although media development in Iraq has not been an unmitigated success, the gains that have been made in the last ten years are coming under mounting threat as the battle for political ascendancy drags on.