Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- More than seven years after the change of its political order, Iraq today has one of the Arab world’s largest number of media outlets of all types. It has independent, partisan, Islamic, and educational satellite television channels, as well as several government-owned public service stations. Iraq is also home to several radio stations and over 200 newspapers, some of which have international editions. Many are local papers published by political parties and Islamic organizations and some are independent commercial ventures. Additionally there are the government-owned official gazettes.
As far as the print media is concerned, no political, religious, or independent publisher has issued a Friday or holiday edition because of the difficulties associated with printing and distribution when the workers have their days off. These publications do not appear on religious and other holidays, not because of a lack of desire from their publishers, but because most employees opt to take break during these holidays. In free-market countries various arrangements are made to avoid a halt in production during holidays. Although Iraq adopts a free-market system today, it is normal for markets, factories, and even government departments to close down for many days either for elections to be held or when religious occasions are observed.
An authorized source at the National Media Center, which comes under the Council of Ministers’ jurisdiction, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the newspapers’ disappearance on Fridays and holidays is a legacy of Saddam Hussein’s era and that the current media establishments have not so far been able to break away from this unproductive habit. Everyone knows that newspapers actually appear on these days in most Arab countries, but not in Iraq. The source, who asked not to be identified, explained that the reason does not lie with the Media organizations themselves but with the newspapers’ “stock market,” which specifies the days on which the papers can appear. No newspaper dares to appear on holidays. If it does, it will only lose the printing costs and its editions will not be sold in the streets.
Regarding the statistics pertaining to the media, the source said: “Seven years after the regime change, Iraq has 102 satellite channels, most of which transmit from outside Iraq. Some can hardly be called Iraqi. We do not know what parties stand behind them but they broadcast in Iraqi dialect and carry Iraqi items at the start of their news bulletins, so we count them as Iraqi channels. Additionally there are Islamic, political, sports, cultural, and charity satellite channels. The number of radio stations is very small by comparison, not exceeding 15 stations. Most of them transmit from inside Iraq, specifically from northern Iraq. Finally there are the newspapers, whose number is difficult to determine. Some are published on a weekly basis but announce that they are dailies and will begin to print on a daily basis when financing becomes available. Others publish a couple of issues then disappear. Then there are the periodicals published by the governorates, political parties, ministries, and civil organizations. Anyway, they are numerous. It is important to have statistics or perhaps an establishment that will undertake the task of knowing all the details about these periodicals.”
Uns al-Lami, proprietor of Uns Printing Press, which prints and distributes local newspapers, talked to Asharq Al-Awsat about the effects that too many holidays have on the business. He said: “Iraq has too many holidays, especially if you add to them Friday and Saturday of every week. When the newspaper disappears on these days, this has a negative impact on the journalistic establishment in question and also on the printing press. In some weeks the newspaper appears on two days only but I still have to pay the workers, the rent on the building, and other expenses. The newspaper publisher also suffers because of decreased income. Most periodicals have advertising contracts with government departments and private establishments. These are the chief source of income. Everyday a newspaper does not appear means the loss of very large sums, amounting to millions.”
Al-Lami added that 40 percent of newspapers are private businesses that depend on their own financing. The rest are government-owned, party newspapers, or papers that belong to religious groups. They depend less on income from advertising but they still need to meet their various expenses and pay salaries.
Iraqi holidays have multiplied greatly in number in comparison with Saddam Hussein’s era, especially because the government has been forced to recognize the holidays of all the religious sects. Furthermore recent events have decreed that every occasion should have its special day.
A peculiar thing is that the Iraqi people use various calendars to set their holidays. Some use the Islamic calendar, some the Western calendar, and some the Persian one–for the Noruz holiday, for example. This is caused by the fact that Iraq was occupied by other civilizations for long periods, including the Persians, Ottomans, and the British. The government uses the Western calendar to organize official holidays and festivities but religious holidays last for more days than in other Muslim countries because the Sunni and Shiite sects set different feast days for Id Al-Fitr and Id Al-Adha.
Economists cite sources in the Planning Ministry as saying that Iraq suffers huge losses as a result of this but the government is avoiding putting an accurate figure on these losses as other countries do. It should be mentioned that the Iraqi Government earlier proposed a law specifying the country’s official holidays with the aim of “organizing official holidays, setting a date for Iraq’s National Day, and highlighting the religious and cultural feasts that mean so much to the Iraqi people.” The law stated that some former holidays should be abolished and specified the following occasions as official holidays: Friday and Saturday of every week; the first day of Muharram, which is the Muslim new year; 10 Muharram, which marks the day of Ashura; 12 Rabi al-Awwal, marking the prophet’s birthday; 15 Sha’ban, the anniversary of the Shiite Uprising, 1-3 Shawwal, coinciding with Id Al-Fitr; 10-13 Dhu al-Hijjah, marking Al-Adha feast; 1 January, the Western New Year; 6 January, Army Day, 21 March, marking the Noruz feast; 1 May, the international Labor Day; 14 July, the anniversary of the founding of Iraq; 3 October, which is Independence Day, the Republic of Iraq’s National Day.
Regarding Id Al-Fitr and Id Al-Adha, the bill stated that in case Sunni and Shiite authorities did not agree when the first day of the feast would fall on; the Department of Religious Trusts would specify the date and set it as an official holiday that will last until the last day of the holiday also specified by the same department. It said that the entire holiday should not exceed five days at any rate. The bill would authorize the provinces’ local governments to allow the holy cities of Al-Najaf, Karbala, Al-Kazimiyah, and Samarra to set official holidays marking these cities’ feasts on condition that these holidays did not exceed three calendar days.
Concerning religious holidays for the non-Muslim segments of the Iraqi population, the proposed law kept the following already recognized holidays: for the Christians 25 December as a major holiday; for the Moses followers’ sect, the Day of Atonement, Pessah, and the Feast of Tabernacles; for the Sabeans [Mandeans, tiny Gnostic sect that reveres John the Baptist] the Panja Feast, which is their major holiday on 7-8 August, and the little feast on 23 November; for the Yazidis, the first Friday of December of every year, the first Wednesday of April according to the Eastern calendar, 23-30 September according to the Eastern calendar, and 18-21 July according to the Eastern calendar.