Iraq, Asharq Al-Awsat – For many years, during the reign of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, independent media in Iraq was non-existent. The only available media was that of the state and the ruling Baath party; both published the same news alongside pictures of the Iraqi leaders and his statements, time and again. To make matters worse, Arab and western newspapers were banned and the signals of foreign radio and television stations scrambled. Iraqis were also prohibited from owning satellite dishes, with army helicopters regularly raiding the Baghdad sky in search of offending homes. Any satellite equipment that was found was immediately confiscated and its owner would be fined or sentenced to four years in jail.
In those years, only five newspapers were published in Iraq : al Tahwrah, the Baath party mouthpiece, al Jumhuriyah, an organ of the state, al Qadissiyah, representing the armed forces, al Iraq, the public security mouthpiece and Babel , owned by Uday, Saddam Hussein’s eldest son. The sole weekly magazine, Alef Ba, was state-run. Uday also personally supervised a number of professional weeklies, including: al Zawra (the Union of Journalists), al Ummal (the General Federation of Labor Unions), al Baath al Riyadi (the Olympic Committee), al Itihad (the Union of Manufacturers), Nabd al Shabab (the General Federation of Iraqi Youth), Sawt al Talabah (the National Federation of Iraqi Students) and al Mar’ah (the General Federation of Iraqi women).
As for radio and TV, Iraqis could chose between one official television station (Iraq TV) and one radio station (Radio Baghdad), after Uday’s stations closed down. Most of the coverage on Iraq TV was of Saddam’s speeches, sometimes lasting several hours, to the extent that Iraqis began referring to their only channel as Saddamvision!
Given the repressive policies of the deposed regime and the dearth of independent media outlets, it was natural to see a burgeoning of media organizations after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. It was as if a genie was released from the bottle after a very long time! Daily, weekly and monthly publications proliferated. Many represented a particular political platform or current. Few marketed themselves as independent, but questions persisted about their funding.
In this respect, Mohammed al Sabawi, an Iraqi journalist, told Asharq al Awsat, “None of the editors of independent newspapers will tell you how their paper is funded. But we know the financial backers of some of them”, in reference some US-backed publications. Zayd al Hali, a retired Iraqi journalist and media expert, said, “The number of daily newspapers reached fifty but then declined. At present, there are twenty six daily papers. The average number of pages for each newspaper dropped from 24 to 16. It’s now 12. Families and even individuals hastened to publish their own paper [after the fall of Saddam Hussein], to make up for years of repression and a lack of freedom of expression.”
According to Yahya Lazim, a 47 year-old owner of a newspaper kiosk on Ramadan street in Baghdad , the best-selling papers are: al Sabah, Asharq al Awsat, al Zaman, al Mada and al Sabah al Jadeed. Many newspapers are affiliated to political parties, including al Baynay, issued by by Iraqi Hezbollah and al Basaer, by the Authority of Muslim Scholars.
Because many newspapers advocate factional views, independent-minded Iraqi leaders tend to flock to non-partisan papers. For example, Asharq al Awsat’s Iraqi edition is almost always sold out before 10 am. Maha al Khatib, a 23-year-old loyal reader and a volunteer at a human rights organization, said, “Because Asharq al Awsat doesn’t support any Iraqi political faction, it is highly regarded.”
“It is difficult for Iraqis to believe what they read in most newspapers, television and radio channels who support one party or another. It is rare to find a neutral and objective Iraqi media outlet. I personally get my news from al Mada and al Sabah newspapers, al Arabiyah television, al Sharqiyah TV for local news and BBC radio. There is at least one radio state in each province. In Baghdad , there are tens of stations; they distract listeners instead of acting as objective sources of information.”
Ziad al Ayni, an employee in the electricity authority, said al Sabah was his favorite newspaper because of its excellent coverage of local issues and its in-depth cultural and sports supplements. Asharq al Awsat, he added, was known nationwide for its credibility and professionalism. “I usually watch al Arabiyah TV, al Sharqiyah and Abu Dhabi channels. I also listen to BBC radio”, he said.
In northern Iraq, in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah , the only seller of Arabic newspapers revealed that Asharq al Awsat was very popular with readers. “I get 100 copies every morning. Subscribers receive their papers first. Leftovers are sold in my bookstore. I can safely say that Asharq al Awsat outsells other Arabic papers in the area,” he said.
One of the few Iraqi dailies not affiliated to any political party or current, al Sabah is in fact considered a semi-governmental paper as it was one of the first to emerge after the fall of Saddam Hussein and was established by the government with support from the state run Iraqi Media Network. To which al Iraqiyah television and Baghdad Radio also belong. All three media outlets are believed to reflect official government stances. This was helped by the fact that Al Iraqiyah and Baghdad Radio use the same offices as the former state-run Iraqi TV and Radio authority, in al Sahiliyah.
However, Mohammed Abdel Jaber, editor-in-chief of al Sabah, insisted the newspaper didn’t represent the Iraqi government nor was it affiliated to it. “We are funded from government grants, advertising revenue and sales. We are not influenced by any party and aren’t biased toward anyone. We report the truth.” At 50,000 copies a day, the newspaper has the highest circulation of all dailies in Iraq . It also periodically published sports cultural and other supplements.
Refusing to be drawn into a discussion on the influence of Iraqi newspapers on public opinion, Abdel Jaber said “It is impossible to tell without referring to academic research and statistics. If we consider that total sale figures for all Iraqi papers are close to 130,000 a day and with every paper being read by four different people, this means that, on average, there are no more than half a million newspaper readers. We need to analyze the impact of newspapers on these readers.”
Despite the lack of official Iraqi news agency, ostensibly because regulations did not provide for one to be established, two news agencies currently operate in the country: the National Iraqi News Agency (NINA) and the Voices of Iraq. Mohammed al Sabawi told Asharq al Awsat NINA broadcast through its news through the internet. “We have shut down our free website and now television channels and newspapers have to pay to receive our services. We were founded thanks to the efforts of three journalists, including Farid Ayar, our current chairman, who is also the Secretary-General of the Union of Arab news agencies. Unfortunately, the Iraqi media is dominated by politicians. Independent media suffers from a lack of resources.”
Al Sabawi agreed with other experts that satellite television channels were the most influential in shaping Iraqi public opinion. “There are twelve Iraqi satellite news channels which are all highly politicized. This makes it difficult for ordinary Iraqis to form an independent opinion.”
For his part, Iraqi cartoonist Abdul Rahim Yasser decried the lack of facts and figures on the funding of media outlets or their popularity. “The Iraqi media desperately needs serious studies and surveys to be conducted in order to measure its impact on public opinion. For example, I receive daily comments form my readers. But this is not enough to say I shape the public’s views.”
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, radio stations have also flourished in Iraq . Baghdad alone has more than 10 stations, most highly partisan. Asharq al Awsat met with Hamid al Amari, director of Radio al Mustakbal, which is affiliated to the National Accord Movement. Initially established in Jordan in 1996, the station returned to the Iraqi capital in September 2003, in the wake of the US-led invasion. It currently broadcasts from 6am until 1am at night and provides listeners with the latest news, culture and sports information. It also features a program called “Listener’s Parliament” where the Iraqi public is invited to take part in a discussion on a host of cultural, social, political and economic issues.
With constant power cuts, it is no surprise that radio has increased its audience figures and become the most reliable medium, as Saad al Janabi, owner of Rasheed TV and Al Syadah newspaper indicated.