Iraq’s media in the Sectarian crossfire
With sectarian tensions in the country running high, Iraq’s media may be adding fuel to the fire, writes Salah Nasrawi
The sharpening divide between Iraq’s Shias and Sunnis has given rise to sectarianism in the Iraqi media that many believe is increasingly turning nascent outlets into venues for sowing chauvinism and undermining nation-building in the ethnically split and violence-torn country.
The era after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein has brought unprecedented waves of enthusiasm for independent news organisations and triggered a boom in the local media that has given Iraqis free-for-all platforms on their new-found but troubling path to democracy.
However, 10 years after the US-led invasion of the country that toppled the repressive Saddam regime and was hailed as paving the way for democracy in Iraq, the mood has changed as Iraqis face the daily reality of their media suffering from serious professional and ethical problems, including shady ownership, political influence and bias.
Indeed, due to their flagrant bias and even the sectarian warfare they have found themselves engaged in, much of what has been left are merely the mouthpieces of various ethnic and sectarian factions and party patrons who use them for their own ends.
In recent weeks, and as the country has been mired in a deep Shia-Sunni conflict over power and wealth-sharing, concerns have been growing that the media is playing a negative role in deepening the country’s political crisis.
Whether by choice or by ownership agendas, Iraq’s media is widely seen as being driven into participating into the kind of sectarian shouting that many of the country’s politicians fear could be the trigger for renewed civil strife on street level.
Overall, the Iraqi media is now split into three camps, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish, each of which leans towards its own community. While the third is basically oriented to defending Kurdish interests, the Shia and Sunni camps remain engaged in sectarianism and political insult throwing.
Sunni-owned radio and television stations have been accused by Shias of partaking in the vocal fighting by presenting rumours or sectarian rhetoric and giving platforms for speakers and preachers to incite hatred.
Since the Sunnis started demonstrations in December to protest against perceived discrimination, orators at their public rallies have been accusing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s government of being “Safavids”, a derogatory way of saying that it belongs to Shia and Persian Iran and is not of Arab descent.
Another insult used recently at Sunni protests against Shia politicians is that the latter are “Alqamis”, a reference to the Shia chief minister to the last Muslim Abbasid caliph Ibn Alqami, who, Sunnis claim, betrayed the Sunni caliph and surrendered Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 CE.
Both accusations are meant to blame Iraqi Shias for the US-led invasion in 2003 and Iran’s increasing influence in the country afterwards.
Last week, many Sunni-owned media outlets reported that fliers signed by a Shia militant group had been distributed in some neighbourhoods of Baghdad ordering Sunnis to leave their homes. The same outlets had reported earlier that many Sunni activists had been assassinated by “silencers” in other neighborhoods.
On Sunday, Iraq’s media regulatory body sent a stern warning to the country’s media outlets that it would not tolerate sectarianism in their broadcasts. “They should rectify their discourse and stop the sectarianism,” Mujahid Abul-Leil of the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission was quoted as saying by several Iraqi outlets.
Al-Maliki himself has blasted certain unnamed television networks for providing platforms to his Sunni opponents, whom he has accused of using sectarianism to incite members of their communities against the government.
“I tell those speaking with sectarianism in the sectarian media… to keep away from it,” Al-Maliki told a conference in Basra in south Iraq on Sunday.
On the other hand, Sunnis have accused media outlets owned or financed by Shia political groups of lacking religious tolerance, with some of them going as far as to promote sectarian divisions.
Many Iraqis accuse Al-Maliki’s Shia-led government of using the state-owned media to slander his opponents as either “terrorists” or “collaborators” with foreign countries.
Among the country’s mostly criticised outlets are Iraqiya TV and the Al-Sabah daily newspaper, which are run by the Iraqi Media Network, a national conglomerate funded by public money.
Although its director, Mohamed Abdel-Jabar Al-Shabout, a Shia journalist who is close to al-Maliki, has denied that the two outlets are government mouthpieces, he has insisted that the group is entitled to take up positions on key issues.
“The duty of the state media is to defend the society and to prevent its slipping into a civil war, to encourage dialogue, and to seek political compromises instead of military confrontations,” Al-Shabout wrote in an editorial in Al-Sabah recently.
“The state-owned media cannot be neutral. Neutrality should not come at the expense of objectivity and national interests. You cannot be neutral between chaos and order, or between war and peace, or between a state and no state,” he wrote.
The Network, which was meant to be a world-class media operation, was established by the US-led coalition to replace Saddam’s state-owned media and produce “fair and balanced news coverage” and function as a public-broadcasting service that would transcend political and sectarian divisions.
However, once leading Shia parties took control of the government following the 2005 elections, the multi-million-dollar body evolved into a propaganda tool for the government with a discernible sectarian bias.
One of the key accusations is that the group did not send reporters to cover the ongoing protests in the Sunni provinces, though Al-Shabout has said that this was out of fear that its reporters could be harassed or even killed.
The Kurds, who have been at loggerheads with the Baghdad government over resources and territory, are also unhappy with the group’s performance and accuse it of being a mouthpiece for Al-Maliki.
The controversy has underscored the troubled status of the Iraqi media, which many believe is a mirror of a country that has acquired the image of an ethnic and sectarian cauldron.
Since the US-led invasion, hundreds of media outlets, including satellite television stations, radio stations and newspapers, have sprung up, many of them owned or run by political groups touted as sectarian.
Dozens of TV and radio stations that now capture the Iraqi airwaves, and many more print publications that pepper Iraqi newsstands, are affiliated with political or religious parties that seek to advance their agendas.
Some are reportedly financed or backed by Iraq’s neighbours, such as Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and some are accused of being responsible for boosting sectarianism in Iraq. Others receive lavish finance from Iraqi and Arab entrepreneurs who have business interests in Iraq.
Another outlet that is fuelling the sectarian divide in Iraq is the Internet, and many websites can be seen as ways of promoting the interests of sectarian groups.
As a result, Iraq’s media now reflects the country’s political and religious divisions rather than being a diverse and free media and a means to inform, educate and entertain people and act as an essential instrument of nation-building.
What is most disconcerting is that the Iraqi media and journalists are being caught in the crossfire of the country’s sectarian divisions and driven by warlords and self-centred politicians who are inflaming sectarianism for their own greedy interests.