Osama Al-Habahbeh
Last updated: 25 March, 2013

10 years after the war: Iraq’s media caught in sectarian crossfire

Hundreds of new media outlets have sprung up in Iraq since the US-led invasion began a decade ago. Many of them are now owned or operated by political or religious groups with sectarian agendas.

Some are financed by Iraq’s neighbouring countries, including Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and others receive generous funding from wealthy Iraqi and Arab businessmen.

In the first 4-5 years after the war began, the Iraqi press enjoyed a steep increase in freedoms. But the media’s newfound independence came about as part of a general chaos sweeping the country. A chaos in which the country’s successive governments failed to protect journalists from terrorists and religious militias, leaving more than 350 journalists killed.

Sectarian media

The sharp divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims has fostered sectarianism in the Iraqi media. The divide contributes to chauvinism and undermines overall democratic development in the violence-torn country.

After the fall of President Saddam Hussein, independent and local media mushroomed, giving rise to new platforms for the Iraqi people to freely express themselves on in their newfound – and at times worrying – road toward democracy.

10 years after the US-led invasion began, the mood has changed, and the media faces serious professional and ethical problems.

In recent months, the country has seen a rise in the conflict between Shia and Sunni. By virtue of their political ownership, media in Iraq is considered – and used as – a weapon in this conflict; a role which many Iraqis fear could trigger a new civil war.

The Iraqi media is now divided into three camps: the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds. While the latter orients itself almost solely towards the defense of Kurdish interests, the Shia and Sunni camps are engaged in sectarianism and political fights, insults and mudslinging.

Shia Muslims accuse Sunni-owned radio and television stations of spreading false rumours and giving imams a platform from where to incite hatred.

Protesting against the discrimination they experience, Sunni politicians in December accused Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government of being “Safavids” – a derogatory word in this context, accusing government politicians of being of Persian, rather than Arab descent.

Such allegations seek to blame Iraqi Shia Muslims for having assisted the US-led invasion in 2003 and in securing a subsequent growing influence for Iran in the country.

Last week the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission sent a stern warning to the media.

“They (the media) should change their discourse and stop sectarianism,” said Mujahid Abul-Leil, head of the commission.

Prime Minister Al-Maliki has also accused certain media outlets to be the voice of his Sunni opponents.

“I warn those who speak using sectarianism in the media … to stay away from it,” he said at a conference in Basra in early March.

Meanwhile, many Iraqis accuse Al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government of using state-owned media to slander his opponents.

Public media not neutral

Iraqiya TV and the Al-Sabah newspaper are among Iraq’s most criticised media. Both are run by the Iraqi Media Network IMN, a national institution funded by the public’s taxes.

IMN’s director, Mohamed Al-Shabout, a Shia journalist close to Prime Minister al-Maliki, has denied allegations of his outlets acting as government mouthpieces. Instead, he insists, the media has the right hold its own opinions on key issues.

“It is the duty of state-controlled media to defend society and prevent it from sliding into civil war, to promote dialogue and to seek political compromises rather than military confrontation,” Al-Shabout wrote in Al-Sabah recently.

“The state-owned media cannot be neutral. Neutrality should not be at the expense of national interests. You cannot be neutral on the issue of chaos and order, war and peace, state and no state,” he wrote.

IMN was established by the US-led coalition as a world-class public service radio and television service to replace Saddam Hussein’s state-owned media.

Since Shiite parties took control of the government in 2005, the IMN network has evolved into a government propaganda tool with sectarian tendencies.

One allegation against the network concerns its failure to send reporters to cover ongoing protests in the Sunni provinces.

IMN-chief Al-Shabout says he fears his journalists could be harassed or killed if sent there. At the same time, IMN without exception covers the annual Shia pilgrimage procession to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf where dozens are killed every year in suicide bombings.

The Kurds, who are on bad terms with the central government in Baghdad are also dissatisfied with the Iraqi Media Network, accusing it of acting as a mouthpiece for the prime minister.

Young bloggers bring hope

While the Iraqi media is caught in the crossfire of the country’s sectarian divides, a new movement provides hope for the future: The Iraqi bloggers.

“The Arab bloggers who contributed to toppling dictators in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired us to stand together and try to create a better society in Iraq,” says Hamzoz, spokesperson for the Iraqi Network for Social Media Activists (INSM), a group of young Iraqis fed up with sectarian war, longing for lives like those of young people elsewhere.

In Iraq, where people’s freedom of movement is restricted due to lack of security, and the influence of factional forces on the media, citizen-journalists give rise to new voices in the national and local discourse.

“Blogging is a chance for me to express my opinions and thoughts freely without being subjected to the political agendas of the news organisations,” says Hamzoz.

“We complement the corporate media with local and citizen information. The blogging network’s goal is to expose human rights abuses, so we blog about the concerns of regular people, which are then republished by journalists. We hope this will help ensure a brighter future for Iraq,” says Hamzoz.

Osama Al-Habahbeh is International Media Support’s (IMS) Iraq Programme Manager. This article originally appeared on IMS. The views expressed are the author’s own.

EDITOR’S PICK The Gypsies of Iraq – meetings with a people in isolation