Iraq represents a quite singular example among Middle Eastern media landscapes, as it has been forcibly transformed from a secluded Baath-Party-run context into a liberalised one where hundreds of outlets compete for audience and few independent voices face a daily struggle to circumvent state and partisan pressures. What makes it peculiar is actually the way this development was triggered, that is by the US invasion of 2003, which still casts its alien shadow over a set of institutions that were established to back up “democratisation” efforts.
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein exacerbated pre existing sectarian and political tensions, intertwined with the local and international dimensions of the dispute over the country’s enormous natural resources, that are predictably mirrored in the Iraqi media. Therefore, the majority of the outlets are financially tied to the Iraqi political forces with limited room for independence. At the same time, the ubiquitous state control, a legacy of 45 years of multifaceted totalitarianism (1958-2003), has not faded away with the downfall of Saddam, leaving its trademark on the way most Iraqis perceive the role of media (as a propaganda tool) and creeping into trade unions, regulatory bodies, legal loopholes and media practices in general. This does not mean that the current situation can be equated with the Baathist regime, it is more telling of the groundless assumptions of the US-led coalition that the removal of Saddam would have immediately paved the way for a liberal ruling class and of a resilient popular conviction that the media should portray Iraq in a positive light. According to a BBC Action survey conducted in nine Iraqi Shia-majority southern provinces in 2012, 97 percent of the respondents believed that the media should contribute to creating a sense of pride and national unity. The Iraqi government is currently dominated by Shia political forces.
For what concerns the development of media markets, even though the country saw advertising expenditure grow by more than 85 percent in 2011, according to the Dubai Press Club-Deloitte Arab Media Outlook, Iraq remains a context where companies are reluctant to invest because of the security costs. It is not a coincidence that a major market analysis like the Arab Media Outlook covered Iraq for the first time only in its 4th edition in 2012, before excluding it in 2016-18. The weight of advertisement is still quite limited in light of an excessive reliance on state or party funding, which has also resulted in limited performance incentives. Unlike ads-free party media, independent outlets struggle to make ends meet by relying solely on advertising (which consists mainly of telecommunications companies); furthermore, until 2008, when PM Nuri al-Maliki decided to reduce government advertising in the press, the state-derived revenues of independent newspapers were still estimated to range between 40 and 70 percent. The economic straits have thus coerced several platforms into accepting the support of politicised pressure groups that have little interest in objectivity.
With regards to mass circulation, for sure post-Saddam Iraq has witnessed a radical transformation from a country where satellite dishes were completely banned to one where almost every household has one. Internet coverage still lacks behind most other Arab countries though and the security situation continues to hamper the circulation (and sale) of newspapers and the development of functioning infrastructures. Since 2003, Iraq has basically remained in a state of perpetual conflict with few medium intensity breaks followed by the latest descent into open war between pro-government forces and the self-declared Islamic State (IS) in mid-2014. The ongoing violence has displaced numerous citizens and hindered their access to radio, TV and the Internet. According to a Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)-Gallup study conducted in late 2014, more than one-quarter (27.0 percent) of Iraqis confirm having been displaced in the previous 12 months, with a larger proportion hailing from IS-controlled areas.
In such a challenging context, the achievements of Iraqi journalism should not be underestimated, including the production of investigative contents and public service TV programs. However, the efforts of the most skilled Iraqi media practitioners are not supported by a fully-fledged educational and professional environment; university studies on journalism are still heavily affected by weak broadband and precarious electricity and the road to access the job market is fraught with danger, especially in the case of war coverage, due to almost inexistent contractual guarantees and lack of trainings.
A premise should be added about the Iraqi Kurdish media landscape, which will be briefly discussed later on. A nationally framed profile should not be the place for discussing Kurdish media, as their audience is a transnational one, which is the reason why they will not be the focus of this study. However, some of the Kurdish outlets are fully engaged (together with their political sponsors) in the media war for Iraqi hearts and minds and, in some cases, they explicitly target an Arabic audience with Arabic programs. The discourse on mass circulation, media markets, legal frameworks, censorship and the hardships of journalistic education applies also to the Kurdish context, although with differences ensued from almost 30 years (1991-2017) of de facto autonomy.
Lastly, this is not the place for an in-depth analysis of IS media, even if the group still controls significant swathes of Iraqi territory and it has recently built an impressive media apparatus. The reason for not discussing IS at length here is to be firstly traced in its transnational dimension that would require us to delve into global jihadist media, stretching the scope of this research way beyond the Iraqi and Kurdish contexts. Secondly, most of IS propaganda does not target an Iraqi audience, but a global one of potential foreign fighters who do not speak Arabic. IS mainly operates on social media, whose audience is particularly limited in a country with weak Internet coverage like Iraq. Thirdly, the aforementioned discourse on mass circulation and other aspects of institutionalised media contexts hardly apply to the iron fist-controlled “caliphate” territories, where it is impossible to conduct surveys and interviews.