The Middle East Channel

Democratizing Iraqi media?

Democratizing Iraqi media?

"Freedom of The Press" is often referred to as the fourth pillar of any modern democracy. Democratizing the media has been one of the achievements of the United States in many state-building experiments around the world — but this was not the case in Iraq. After the U.S. intervention in 2003, Iraqi media was transformed from being a heavily controlled state propaganda tool, to a plethora of political, ethnic, tribal, and sectarian mouthpieces.

When Saddam Hussein assumed power on July 17, 1979, the Iraqi press was mostly government-owned. The former Iraqi dictator used the media to promote his ideas and to control the country in a style reminiscent of the Nazi regime in Germany. His propaganda machine was active until the end. Remarkably his official newspapers were still being distributed on April 9, 2003 — the day his brutal regime was toppled. 

The U.S. intervention has had a negative impact on Iraqi media. It was poorly planned and chiefly motivated by the desire to control the information that the public received. The first mistake made by the U.S. administration was to hand the Iraqi Media Project to the Pentagon rather than the State Department. This wasted the previous experience that the State Department had gained through many years of supporting the press of Saddam’s opposition. Also, while many NGOs were dealing with the State Department in the Balkans, the majority refused to deal with the Defense Department in Iraq because of their lack of experience with the military and fears of exposing themselves to security risks. The other mistake was the Defense Secretary’s new strategy of outsourcing and handing a no-bid contract to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a company more experienced in information control and the technical side of building broadcasting systems, than in building a free media organization. It was to be the company’s first project of this kind.

The development of the Iraqi press was undermined by psychological operations practiced by U.S. intelligence and the U.S. army. In attempting to defuse violence against U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and other central areas of Iraq, they tried to buy many journalists and to control their coverage. One of the examples was "The Baghdad Press Club." This club was founded by a group of Iraqi journalists to organize the coverage of the U.S. army "humanitarian activity." Each journalist would receive around $40 to $50 from the head of the club. To others, army officers offered gifts such as cameras or pens, which are considered souvenirs.

The United States made other attempts to gain coverage of topics that could enhance the image of the occupation and demonize militant groups. The Pentagon commissioned companies like The Lincoln Group to conduct large scale, secret psychological operations. The Lincoln Group was awarded a five-year contract with the Pentagon for close to $100 million and was one of the leading contractors in Iraq working in public relations and psychological operations. The group had four offices in Baghdad and Basra. The company was responsible for nearly 1,000 news articles published in 12 to 15 Iraqi newspapers. The cost for publishing each ranged between $40 and $2,000 depending on the newspaper and its reputation. Some editors considered these articles to be "advertorial," while others denied knowledge of the source of the articles. The Government Accountability Office of the U.S. Congress considered those efforts as a form of secret publicity. The U.S. army in Baghdad defended such practices saying it aimed to confront the lies spread by al Qaeda. But the positive stories, designed by The Lincoln Group, which the Iraqi newspapers carried, did not have much effect on general public opinion. If the Americans had been as generous in building a proper liberal Iraqi press as they were in financing the Psy-Ops campaigns, their money would have been better spent. Furthermore in a war zone, it was impossible to make any checks or basic audits of the impact of these well-funded and poorly implemented campaigns. 

Some arguments have been made that the United States used the press to increase divisions among the Iraqi people. This argument is based on the Pentagon plan for the Iraqi media, the "white paper," which was declassified in 2007. The paper included plans for many programs and coverage for the Iraqi media once people were classified according to their sector and ethnicity. The "white paper" suggested creating a page for each major community in Iraq. It suggests that the aim of the Americans was to use media outlets to increase divisions between different communities in Iraq, following a common historically colonial policy of "divide and rule." Also, there was a plan suggested by The Lincoln group called "Divide and Prosper" which suggest leading an aggressive media campaign to disengage the tribal leaders from the insurgency. 

The United States tried to create its own publication, "Baghdad Now," but it was a poor newspaper, hardly followed by the public. It was the biggest newspaper printed in Iraq’s press history with nearly 500,000 copies printed fortnightly. However it did little good for the occupation. In June 2004, the newspaper was closed after the end of the term of the American Authority, the Coalition Provisional Authority, in Iraq.

For Iraqi journalists, the end of Saddam’s regime promised the start of a new era of press freedom and the space to present different points of view. The new authorities, military, NGOs, and others provided a great deal of support to the launch of new publications — a huge number of new and reestablished publications flooded the market. However in the absence of an organizing body due to the collapse of government institutions a plethora of titles emerged, many of which used the same titles as had previously been in circulation, which confused both readers and distributors.

The Americans were motivated by the market standards in the United States base on the concept, "Let one thousand flowers bloom and the best will stay in the market." This was a narrow-minded approach to the situation in the post-conflict country. There were no standards of free market in Iraq prior to the invasion, plus the press was owned by the state and it hadn’t been a private-business for more than two decades. For this reason the high quality publications launched by political parties did not leave much room for commercial and independent publications. Unable to match political parties’ newspapers, which were often sold at a subsidized rate, others failed to be financially stable and many newspapers were forced to close down. Like the press all over the world, the Iraqi press had a problem with sustainability, but on a larger scale due to the ongoing violence.

Support for the Iraqi press came from political parties and the United States, which in turn meant that news coverage could not be entirely free from the effects of the backers’ agenda. The Americans turned Iraqi newspapers into an arena for internal conflict, international interest, and political confrontation. This was a result of not differentiating between democracy and the democratizing process.

The Iraqi press industry remained in its infancy a few years after the fall of Saddam’s regime, and the American motivation to control information prevented the Iraqi press from developing to play the role of the Fourth Estate.

Dr. Haider Al Safi is a broadcast journalist at the BBC World Service and author of the forthcoming Iraqi Media: From Saddam’s Propaganda to American State-Building (Askance-Publishing.com, April 2013).