According to Iraqi media scholar Ahmad K. Al-Rawi, the most liberal phase in Iraqi modern history followed the country’s independence from the British mandate, until the failed revolt led by Rashid Ali al-Kaylani (1921-41). Contrarily to those who believe that Iraq had an authoritarian history until 2003, Iraqi-American political scientist Adeed Dawisha goes further to argue that the whole monarchical period (1921-1958) was one of the most liberal ones, when political parties were allowed to criticize the government. Al-Rawi writes that good quality media was to be partially ascribed to the growth of the Iraqi economy, an increasingly widespread well-being and the development of education.
This was mitigated by Prime Minister Nuri Said’s scarce proneness to accept criticism in the press in the early ‘30s and the subsequent crackdown on opposition parties in 1949. The first Iraqi media law dates back to 1931 under Said, but it was soon replaced by Decree No.57 in 1933, under the more reformist leadership of PM Rashid Ali al-Kaylani, who restored the licences of all the 25 newspapers shut down by Said. Most of the newspapers were launched by the newly-born parties, establishing a link between the political scene and the media which is still persistent nowadays. Many pioneering satirical magazines and newspapers also saw the light in the first two decades of independence, such as Khanas ash-Shawar' (1925) and Adh-Dhara'if (1924).
This liberal phase was brought to an end with the 1941 failed revolt against the monarchy and its British patron, which marked a nationwide restriction on freedom of expression, due also to the fact that some newspapers sided with the rebels. Then came the 1954 Publication Law with further constraints, also on ownership. It was even supported by the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate (IJS), which had already become a tool in the hands of the new authoritarian government.
A new wave of publications came to life in 1958 in the aftermath of the 14 July military coup that succeeded in ousting the monarchy and brought to power Abdul-Karim Qasim, but the event coincided also with a new repressive surge.
In 1954, Iraq became the first Arab country to broadcast from a TV station. The arrival of mass media such as television and radio occurred at a time when only states were able to dispose of the necessary resources, thus turning stations into tools of nationalist propaganda. One of the most popular TV shows back then (Mahkamat ash-Sha'b, The People's Court) featured a mock court that was chaired by Colonel Mehdawi, who used to verbally attack regional rivals of the Qasim regime. Such shows remained a trademark of Iraqi television under Saddam and even after his removal, signaling a continuum in the popular format of "patriotic courts" where defeated enemies were systematically humiliated. In recent times, it is worth remembering Fi Qabdat al-Qanun (In the Grip of the Law), a reality show on state-run Al-Iraqiya TV, where the ‘terrorists’ have been identified at least in one occasion with prominent Sunni tribes known for their animosity towards Maliki’s pro-Iranian cabinet.
Following the 1968 Baathist coup, the major newspapers were seized or closed, while the IJS president Aziz Abdul-Barakat was executed. In the '80s, under Saddam, TV entertainment was heavily militarised in programs such as Suwar Min al-Ma'rakah (Images from the Battlefield), which basically consisted of footage from the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88). In the ‘90s the grip was tightened even further with the appointment of Uday Hussein, the eldest son of Saddam, as the head of the IJS.
Even when Pan Arab satellite TV channels and first of all Al-Jazeera, crossed the borders of national monopoly on information in the late '90s, Iraqis remained outsiders as Saddam banned satellite dishes. In those years, Iraqi Kurdistan stood as an exception, because its de facto autonomy achieved in the aftermath of the Gulf War (1990-91) had allowed the circulation of the Kurdish party press.
On the eve of the US invasion, the media landscape was composed of five newspapers, four radio and three television channels, all controlled by the regime. Unsurprisingly, the fall of Saddam resulted in an unregulated explosion of new platforms all over the country. To understand the proportions, it is worth remembering that, in July 2003, 158 newspapers were published in Iraq, of which 82 were born in the previous month. However, many of these newspapers had to close down soon for economic reasons or because of the precarious security.
Under the US occupation, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA, 2003-04) played a determinant role in shaping the new Iraqi media framework, which was considered a pillar of the ‘democratisation’ of Iraq. Most of the CPA employees who were appointed to oversee the wishful transition from regime media to Western-styled public service were actually from the Department of Defense, because of Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld’s strained relations with the State Department. They had little experience in state building and media development, so the mission to build from scratch a public broadcaster was initially assigned to a defence contractor (Science Application International Corporation - SAIC).
A declassified document from the Department of Defense has prompted a 2013 BBC Media Action policy briefing to conclude that the media reform was more informed by CPA public diplomacy (ie informing the Iraqi people about the Coalition's achievements) rather than by the empowerment of Iraqi media actors. When the CPA decided to re-tender the contract to American broadcast manufacturer Harris Corporation in late 2003, INGOs showed reluctance to engage in such a controversial operation, according to the BBC Action policy briefing and remained bystanders in the establishment of the new public broadcaster, the Iraqi Media Network (IMN).
The CPA mission was further complicated by the hasty decision to disband the Ministry of Information, on which Iraqi journalists’ welfare was highly dependent. When it realize it had unintentionally disrupted safety nets, the CPA decided to pay journalists through the Ministry of Finance, thus failing to establish a financially independent IMN.
While the Ministry of Information was dissolved, the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate remained untouched and, to a certain extent, preserved its Baathist legacy, serving as a tool of control over the media community. In the same period, CPA’s Order 65 established the first media regulator in the Arab world to be independent of government, the Communications and Media Commission (CMC). Overall, the current Iraqi media scene is the outcome of the CPA hasty policies, which introduced unprecedented reforms while retaining some aspects of the ancien régime.
The culture of state control over the media was well rooted among Iraqi politicians and this became even clearer when the CPA had to hand over power to the Iraqi Interim Government (2004), which was later on replaced by the Iraqi Transitional Government (2005). Since then, the IMN and CMC boards have become increasingly staffed with political protégés (the so-called mahsubin), thus partially restoring political control over the media. The situation got even worse under Maliki, who managed to consolidate his influence over the CMC in two consecutive mandates (2006-14). Recently elected premier Haydar al-Abadi (2014) is from Maliki’s party (Ad-Da’wah), but he has presented himself as a reformist. Nonetheless, the compelling priorities dictated by the umpteenth trumpets of war, this time on IS, have predictably postponed any significant media reform.
The Kurdish audience is a parallel universe, where most people opt for Kurdish-language media rather than Arabic ones. It is a different context also from a historical perspective, since it witnessed a liberalisation starting from 1991, more than ten years before the removal of Saddam. Even though television alone is not able to revitalise languages and cultures, it is capable of conferring credibility and legitimacy, especially in the case of an endangered language. These are the words of Iranian Kurdish linguist Amir Hassanpour, when he describes the mission of Kurdish media. The KRG media framework cannot be actually understood without a reference to the suppression of cultural rights in the four 'provinces' of Kurdistan - Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey - among which only Iraq has granted official recognition to the Kurdish language.
The roots of the Kurdish press date back to the ‘20s in Iraq, with the appearance of Bank Kurdistan in 1922. Nowadays, the PUK, which is in good relationships with Iran, controls two dailies (Kurdistani Nuwe in Kurdish and Al-Ittihad in Arabic) and a Kurdish weekly (Chawder). It also provides financial support to the Aso daily. The KDP, whose main regional ally is Turkey, publishes Khabat in Kurdish and At-Taakhi in Arabic, both dailies. Gorran (Change) Movement late leader Nawshirwan Mustafa's Wisha Company owns the Rozhnama daily. His party, also close to Tehran, currently represents the second political force in the Kurdish parliament after KDP, which is its main rival. As for the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), another opposition party, it owns the weekly Yekgirtu. Among the independent outlets, it is worth mentioning Hawlati (twice weekly) and Awene (weekly). Even though there are no reliable circulation data, Hawlati is thought to be the most read paper, printing around 20,000 copies.
Kurdish Radio started broadcasting in 1939, followed by Turkmen Radio in 1959, at a time when Iraq’s ethno-linguistic diversity was still tolerated and not subjected to Baathist assimilationist policies. Today, the most popular Kurdish station, even outside the KRG borders, is the US-funded Radio Nawa.
In 1967, one year before the Baath party's rise to power, Kirkuk TV was inaugurated with the first transmissions in Kurdish, in addition to Arabic, Turkmen and Syriac. Given the small audience of already politicised press readers, Kurdish linguist Jaffar Sheyholislami describes the newspapers as the originators of Kurdish nationalism, whereas he believes that only satellite television can live up to the definition of mass media by virtue of its power to shape a transnational Kurdish consciousness. On the contrary, continues Sheyholislami, terrestrial TV stations (such as Kirkuk TV) have usually remained under the control of government propaganda, even when they have accepted to include Kurdish programs.
At the moment, there are numerous satellite TV stations: Kurdistan TV in Salahuddin, north of Arbil, Zagros TV, Kurdistan24 and Rudaw in Arbil are controlled by the ruling KDP, while the PUK operates KurdSat and Gali Kurdistan, both based in Sulaymania and the KIU runs a channel called Speda. Launched in 2013 and strongly supported by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the Rudaw Media Network is the most ambitious of these projects, including a website in four languages (Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and English), a satellite TV, two newspapers and a radio station that broadcasts in shortwave across the Middle East. However, over the last years, the decline of oil prices and the war on IS have seriously affected the KRG economy, lowering substantially Rudaw's financial resources. Among the independent platforms, it is worth remembering NRT TV, which is part of the Nalia Media Corporation.
Satellite broadcasters who are dedicated to the spread of Kurdish nationalism have first had to overcome the lack of a unified language: There are in fact several very different Kurdish dialects, the most popular being Kurmanji in Turkey and Syria and Sorani in Iraq and Iran. The Kurdish people do not even use the same alphabet, since the Kurds from Syria and Turkey use the Latin alphabet introduced in the '30s by Jaladat Badarkhan Ali, the editor of the Kurdish-Syrian literary magazine Hawar, while in Iraq and Iran they use the Arabic alphabet. Nevertheless, according to Sheyholislami, the nationalist vision of satellite channels like Kurdistan TV is necessarily built on the enforcement of linguistic homogeneity, which is just as relevant as it was in the 19th century European nation states; therefore, for example, the different dialects are combined in the news bulletins, with the presenter speaking in Kurmanji and the correspondent in Sorani.
Among the non-Kurdish media landscapes, it is finally worth mentioning the Turkmen newspaper Sada Tall Afar (The Echo of Tell Afar) and its predictable criticism of Kurdish expansionism, in addition to the newspaper (Bahra ad-Diya') and the radio station (Ashur Radio) of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ZOWAA).