“Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads” is an old Arab saying; nonetheless, today, the Iraqi readership does not live up to its historical legacy anymore. The Mesopotamian country has a literacy rate of 79.7 percent according to CIA Factbook 2015 estimates, but an IREX 2012 survey reveals that while almost all of its citizens (97 percent) rely on national TV channels for news on a weekly basis, about two thirds of the population (61 percent) do not bother to read a newspaper. The decline of interest for the press can be attributed to a number of factors, including the hazards of distribution, the increased accessibility of television for the less educated components and the factionalism of many government and party newspapers.
According to the same IREX survey, the professionalism of journalists is the primary criterion used by Iraqi readers to evaluate the press, followed by the independence from government and party pressures; the conclusions drawn from these parameters are particularly bleak, given that the percentage of Iraqis who rely on print media to follow the news has dropped from 64 percent to 39 percent between 2011 to 2012. According to a study conducted in 2011 by Isma'il Hussein Haddad, a Master student enrolled at the Department of Media Studies of the University of Dhi Qar, 40.44 percent of newspapers do not disclose their sources, with the worst ranking given to the state-run As-Sabah and the best to the independent As-Sabah al-Jadid; independent dailies score therefore better in spite of the exclusive access to sources that is normally granted to Arab state-run newspapers. This in a context where, unfortunately, government and party-controlled media account for a significant share of the market.
IMN-funded As-Sabah usually competes with the independent Pan Arab Az-Zaman for the title of the most read Iraqi daily, according to the same IREX survey. However, the IMN support was soon translated into US interference, which prompted As-Sabah editor-in-chief Isma'il Zayer to quit in protest against the lack of independence in 2004. Zayer decided to bring along part of the newsroom staff and found the independent As-Sabah al-Jadid. Since then the magazine has achieved considerable success, reaching the readership levels of As-Sabah and Az-Zaman in 2010 (IREX 2012).
As-Sabah had instead to deal with the political agenda of its sponsors, who imposed the marginalisation of the crimes committed by the US occupation. The Bush administration even proceeded to infiltrate some of the most respected independent newspapers (Az-Zaman, Ad-Dustur, Al-Mada) through articles written by the Lincoln Group, a company hired by the Pentagon, which were sold as if they were the work of Iraqi freelancers. In this way, the Coalition’s psyops ended up damaging the credibility of new media.
Following the 2005 elections, As-Sabah came to be perceived as a propaganda tool of the Shia parties in control of the government. Between 2012 and 2013, As-Sabah’s biased coverage of the protests that shook the central Sunni regions, as if all demonstrators were hardcore Baathists, left no doubt about whom it was siding with. It is still to be considered a popular newspaper, not by virtue of its objectivity, but because of the significant size of the electoral base of the ruling parties
The liberalisation of the press has also given rise to a series of publications financed by Islamic and ethno-nationalist parties who have nothing to envy to As-Sabah in terms of partisanship. Among the top names of the Shia Islamist party outlets there are Jaridat ad-Da'wah (belonging to ad-Da'wah), Al-'Adalah (Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq - ISCI, now a member of the Citizen Bloc), Ishraqat as-Sadr, Al-Hawzah al-Natiqah (belonging to the Sadrist movement led by nationalist cleric Moqtada as-Sadr) and Al-Bayyinah al-Jadidah (previously known as Al-Bayyinah and owned by the Iraqi Hezbollah, which is particularly close to Tehran).
In the Sunni hemisphere, the number of newspapers is more limited; the purges of the most prominent Baathist figures, along with the Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections and the sluggishness of the Sunni clandestine networks in comparison with their Shia counterparts under Saddam, are all factors that have hindered the flourishing of a Sunni party press. The only significant exceptions are the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (Hay’at al-’Ulama’ al-Muslimin fil-Iraq), the highest Sunni Iraqi authority, which controls the daily Al-Basa'ir and the Iraqi Islamic Party, that is the local Muslim Brotherhood branch, which was already printing the issues of Dar as-Salam in the ‘70s, during its London exile. Dar al-Salam’s partisan rhetoric is at times mitigated with appeals for reconciliation, but its sectarian agenda is quite evident .
There are also independent sheets that struggle to maintain good levels of credibility and contain political pressures. The most well known, even outside Iraq, is the Pan Arab Az-Zaman, which is part of Saad Bazzaz's media empire. After a career as one of the leading figures of the Baathist Ministry of Information, Bazzaz emigrated to the UK in 1992, where he launched Az-Zaman in 1997. In 2003, when it became politically possible for him to resettle in Iraq, the newspaper was already well established internationally.
As several other independent Iraqi media, Az-Zaman gave in to politically motivated funding to ease financial constraints: Saudi Arabia supported the newspaper, as revealed during the libel lawsuit filed against the newspaper by one of the wives of the Qatari Emir, Shaykha Moza, in 2005. Nevertheless, it maintains good levels of professionalism, with a fair degree of criticism of the Gulf monarchies' poor human rights standards and the performance of Iraqi political elites.
Another independent newspaper which enjoys a good reputation is Bassem ash-Shaykh's Ad-Dustur. The owner is known for critical views of Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics and in 2008 the Iranian embassy threatened to sue him. Ad-Dustur cannot be merely labeled as pro-American, but the ash-shaykh's editorials reveal a complacent attitude towards Washington.
Al-Mada sits among the few left-wing avowedly secular newspapers. It was established in 2003 by Fakhri Karim, a Kurdish businessman and former adviser to ex-Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)'s leader Jalal Talabani. In the world of information, some accuse Karim of promoting the interests of the Kurdish autonomous region by virtue of its close relations with Talabani and KRG president Massoud Barzani. While the attitude of Al-Mada was merciless against Maliki in the last years of his mandate, the Kurdish opposition went practically ignored on its pages, with exclusively positive references to the status of human rights in Kurdistan. Having said that, Al-Mada tends to maintain a non-partisan profile and boasts a singularly diverse offer of eight cultural inserts that deal with sports, history and entertainment.