Saturday, October 13, 2007

A history of the media in Iraq

Iraq celebrated Eid al-Fitr today, as did the rest of the Muslim world, to mark the end of Ramadan. The news of the day in Iraq sees the US defending its actions in a military airstrike on Thursday evening that killed 15 civilians in addition to the 19 insurgents it attacked near Tharthar Lake, about 120km north of Baghdad. US forces claim they were attacked first and “had no option but to return fire”. Rear Admiral Greg Smith said the killings were “regrettable” but defended the actions in fluent military language: “A ground element came under fire from that building that we had to neutralize”.

Or so Greg Smith’s words were reported in the New York Times. We only have the American side of this story. Iraq is used to a compliant media. For 23 years before the invasion, its state-controlled daily newspapers always had a photo of Saddam Hussein on the front and featured a paean of op-eds in praise of his policies by party apparatchiks. The story of Iraq’s press is examined in a chapter of a lively book about modern Iraq called “The New Iraq” by controversial young US academic Joseph Braude. Braude is of Iraqi-Jewish background and speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian. He has lived and worked in Tehran, Dubai, and Egypt and spent extensive time in most Middle Eastern capitals. He studied Near Eastern languages at Yale and Arabic and Islamic history at Princeton. He is also an accomplished player of the Oud, a thirteen-string Iraqi version of the lute.

From 2000 to 2003, Joseph Braude served as Senior Middle East Analyst for Pyramid Research, a global consulting firm specializing in the telecommunications industry. He published “The New Iraq” in 2003 around the time of the invasion. In Slate’s review of the book, the magazine described him as a “carpetbagger” and a “breed of civilian who arrives in a newly occupied nation…sniffing around after the money to be made amid all the flux and ferment”.

While it is true that “A New Iraq” takes an ambivalent stand to the US invasion, Braude's critique of Iraq’s media is pertinent. He began by discussing one of Iraq’s unspoken problems: the sex trade. Many Iraqi girls have ended up in Amman, Jerusalem, Damascus and other Middle Eastern capitals where they are rented out by the hour. It has been a story studiously ignored by the Iraqi media. The only time it ever made front page headlines was in 1990 on the eve of the Kuwait invasion when Saddam himself declared that country had enslaved Iraqi women. “The glorious Iraqi woman has come to be sold for one dirham,” he said.

But it wasn’t until after the hyperinflation that followed the 1991 Gulf War that the sex trade really took off. In 2002, Qatari station Al Jazeera broke open this taboo subject across the Gulf in its weekly show “Just For Women”. But it only covered the situation in Turkey and only obliquely discussed the problems in the “granteur states” which was shorthand for the Arab peninsula. Braude said that as of 2003, Saddam remains the only Arab ruler to ever shame a Gulf country by name for the practice.

Braude then harked back to a 9th century Basra born social commentator and essayist called Al-Jahiz. When al-Jahiz moved to Baghdad, the then capital of the Abbasid Empire, he acquired a reputation as a gifted writer and intellectual. He was an independent voice on local politics and expressed an embryonic theory of evolution about a thousand years before Darwin. He also wrote “The Book of Singing Slave Girls” which talked about the ancient trade from both the points of view of the masters and the slaves.

If Al-Jahiz was a proto-journalist, the first real newspapers existed in Iraq by 1816. In that year, westerners first reported the existence of a local news bulletin called “Jurnal al-Iraq” printed in both Arabic and Turkish. It discussed mostly local affairs and survived probably because it took a pro-Ottoman stance. If true, the Journal of Iraq would be the world’s first Arabic newspaper but unfortunately no copies of the bulletin survive to prove the theory.

The first newspaper in Iraq for which there are extant copies is the 1869 weekly called “al-Zawra” (Arabic for “The curved [city]”). The then Pasha of Baghdad had previously been the Ottoman ambassador to Paris and he took back a printing press to Iraq. Like the earlier "Jurnal", it too was a mouthpiece for the administration but also had stories about the advent of electricity and the importance of eating fruit and vegetables. Today Iraqi journalists celebrate “press day” on 15 June each year, which marks the first issue of Al-Zawra in the year 1869.

The first signs of press independence occurred after the Young Turks had shaken up the decaying Ottoman Empire with a new constitution in 1908. By 1914, 70 publications arose in Iraq to take advantage of the new press freedoms, many critical of the regime. This permissive policy did not last and first the Ottomans, and the British (who inherited the Iraqi mandate after World War I) closed nearly all of these newspapers.

There was also antagonism from the mullahs. Several preachers railed against the media citing Muhammad calling on believers to “avoid gossip, wasting money and asking too many questions” which seemed to describe journalists to a tee. But they needed not have worried too greatly about press influence. As late as 1947, Iraq had a literacy rate of just 11 percent. It wasn’t until Saddam’s regime that this problem was fully addressed.

The British used their time in Iraq to start newspapers of their own and explain their reasons for occupation. In opposition, a paper appeared in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf with a mission to “respond to the occupiers’ deception, to disquiet them, [and] to reveal their barbaric misdeeds”. Al-Istiqlal (“Independence”) would remain a thorn in the side of the British until they relinquished their claim to the country in 1932.

In the newly formed Iraq, al-Zarman (“Time”) founded in 1937 won a quick reputation for objectivity. But after the assassination of King Faisal II and the consolidation of one-party rule in 1958, Iraq brought an end to press freedoms. Censorship escalated through the 1960s and in 1969 the media (now complete with state television) was formally co-opted as a fourth branch of government. With deputy president Saddam pulling the strings in the background, the media was given a new purpose: to win over the hearts and minds of the masses to Ba’athism.

Top journalists quickly climbed the ranks of the administration. Iraq’s foreign minister during the 1991 war, Tariq Aziz, was a previous editor of al-Thawra (“the revolution”). But Iraqis themselves grew to distrust the ceaseless propaganda coming from their state-run media. During the 1991 bombing of Baghdad, Iraqi radio played a constant stream of music and worried citizens had to turn to American Radio Liberty and the BBC Arabic service to find out what was happening.

Saddam also tried to limit the spread of satellite dishes and the Internet in Iraq. To be caught with a satellite dish could invite a five-year jail sentence. Internet access was limited to a few caf├ęs in three major centres of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul and priced beyond the means of most Iraqis. Braude expressed the hope that returning Iraqis would lead an information revolution in the time beyond Saddam. That hope remains forlorn while journalists are in the frontline of the war. The 2007 Reporters Without Borders annual report for Iraq made 2006 the bloodiest year yet for media workers since the war with at least 65 dead. And the culture of blaming the messenger continues: the al-Maliki government regularly threatens to shut down media outlets it blames for “inciting violence.”

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