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Iraqi Media under the spotlight…

The recent election events in Iraq, both in the campaign period and  the aftermath, have put the professionalism and competence of  Iraqi media and its many outlets under scrutiny, and most observers would not pass any of them with flying colours.

While they range in their impartiality between pretence and outright vulgar promotion of certain political parties to the extent that a family visit of the head of a party is breaking headline news! None of them seem to have taken on the mantle of  fairness in comment. Al-Hurra Iraq could be considered to have come closest to that, but one cannot ignore the fact that is firstly not an Iraqi channel, secondly it was set up by the US Government with the political aim of improving the image of the US in the Arab world.

This introduces two problems, each channel is on an ideological mission devoid of of the aim of presenting fair facts to its viewers, resulting in those viewers being further polarised and stifling debate between various groups of Iraqi society and hindering progress in reconciliation. In fact, the way these outlets cherry-pick their facts and news can lead to fanning the flames of tensions between the various sects of Iraqis, and creating further sentiments of disenchantment.

The second problem is a result of the first, since the outlets are not working towards an economic goal of expanding their viewer base through impartiality and fairness, their very survival will depend on funds from various interested sources. These sources could be foreign with agendas against Iraqi national interest, again resulting in hardship to Iraq and its long-suffering people.

And although it is understandable that certain parties would use these outlets for self-promotion, it is disheartening to see the Iraqi Media Network, which was supposedly set up as an independent media agency, being forced to become an tool for the government rather than the state, most likely due to the fact that all other agencies are politicised and the government had to find a means of expression amidst the opposing voices.

Such problems can be solved through either forcing the media to declare their earnings and sources of income and be run as commercial entities, which can seem draconian, or through applying the “fair comment” doctrine, which establishes a set of rules and is enforced through the legal system. Both solutions are vulnerable to political interference and require a certain amount of political will and restraint by governmental bodies to ensure their impartiality.

While most people still debate the merits and detriments of the invasion of Iraq, few can dispute the  fact that it has offered Iraqis a freedom of expression of unprecedented levels in the Middle East. We are, however, running the danger of abusing that freedom and losing all its benefits.

4 Comments on “Iraqi Media under the spotlight…”

  1. Ali D April 25, 2010 at 3:10 am #

    Hi Safwan

    Thanks for the article; it raises an issue that I was aware of but had not stopped to give any deep thought- I just accepted the reality of ‘freedom of expression’ as an understandably imperfect system of delivering objective information.

    In response to your proposals (running media outlets as commercial entities and/or using a “fair comment” doctrine), do you not think that this may be counter productive? I know that you did allude to the issue of impartiality on the government’s behalf, but I would argue that it maybe a deeper issue. As a principle, people should be able to hold a bias, even if delivering information to the public- or is this too naive an opinion?

    I am not sure about the practical effectiveness of simply arguing that an independent media watch could solve the issue (especially now, where the country is at its early stages of political growth), but perhaps this is the route to go down in the future. If people don’t like the murky background/motives/funding of a particular news organisation, or if they feel that a certain bias underlines the reporting of some, then surely we should allow people to use the same principle of freedom of expression to make public their views. What’s your opinion on the matter? Could the issue simply solve itself by the same pretext that permitted the problem to occur? Will we eventually find that public opinion improves the quality of products presented in this competitive market? Or is there indeed a deeper cultural issue at hand here, where corrective procedure needs to be applied from the top down?

    Again many thanks for your articles,

    Ali D

    • Safwan Mudhafar April 25, 2010 at 12:32 pm #

      Dear Ali,

      Thanks for your engaging comment and for the undoubtedly valid points you raise.

      You said that “freedom of expression is an imperfect system of delivering objective information”, a statement with which I agree and to which I will add that it is better than most.

      However the problem with Iraqi media seems to stem from the perversion of the system and while my objections do not lie in the bias of opinion, they are with the bias of delivering facts and the outright distortion of them in some cases.

      A fair comment doctrine should not infringe on people’s right to a certain opinion no matter how biased or extreme, but it ensures that they are presented as opinions whilst allowing an opposing opinion to be voiced and that facts are presented as such, people are absolutely entitled to their opinions but not to their own facts. It would also restrict the practices of distortion and misinformation by certain outlets.

      In any case, the implementation of such a doctrine in Iraq is not realistic even if I did suggest it as a solution, as it requires a sophisticated and an independent judiciary, which we do not yet have. So I totally agree with you in that respect that it could be counter productive.

      As for monitoring funding of channels and forcing them to be run as commercial entities, that may seem easier to do on the surface but could hit many stumbling blocks, such as the ability to disguise that funding and its sources as well the impartiality of the monitoring agency in selecting which media agencies to monitor or investigate.

      The reason why I believe this is a problem that should be addressed and that a laissez-faire approach may be irresponsible in such a case is because the cost can be lives of innocent Iraqis. Certain statements and misrepresentations can stoke the fires of sectarian and ethnic tensions and that is where I believe the line should be drawn. All it takes is a very small number of people who may be influenced by a certain outlet to cause major destruction, and in normal circumstances where a media channel would not survive financially with that small viewer base, in Iraq it can be helped on by funding from groups which have agendas that are not in line with Iraq’s national interest.

      Any solution will require a enormous amount of political will by the governing bodies as it will be creating a system that could possibly condemn them at a later stage, and that’s where the difficulty lies.

      Regards,

  2. Ali D April 27, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    Dear Safwan

    Thank you for clarifying your points. I have to say that I largely agree that there is a need for regulation. Can this regulation, however, not occur through some independent body (I mean really independent, not IHEC independent)? I have not looked into the matter in any detail myself, but how and to what extent does such regulation occur in other parts of the world? Perhaps the issue of our current lack of judiciary could be remedied with the introduction of an advisory body or quango that monitors and regulates the media, but one that has no executive power?

    More questions than suggestions here, but, what do you think?

    Many thanks

    Ali D

  3. Safwan Mudhafar April 30, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    Dear Ali,

    The problem with having an advisory body or a quango with no teeth in Iraq is that its advice can be easily ignored by the executive power when it does not suit them.

    The UK has a similar approach and I believe it is OfCom that monitors the media with the application of a fairness doctrine that can always be enforced through the courts. There is a certain amount of respect for the impartiality of such bodies and their recommendation and fines are almost always obeyed.

    It is that respect and political will that believes in the overall benefit of impartial media to the country as a whole which is lacking in Iraq and until that is found, I am hard pressed to find any solution for this problem.

    A contrast to the UK system is the US, which allows for a lot more freedom of expression as enshrined in the first amendment of their constitution, and that is why you and I are mortified every time we by accident switch to FOX news and see how shamelessly biased they are. That has also made US society a lot more politically polarised with many contradictions.

    Many thanks,

    Safwan

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