Freedom without security isn’t much of a freedom!

blogging the 4th Arab Media Forum in Dubai

This is the over-riding feeling at the “Status of Iraqi media” chaired by Jassim Al-Azzawi and included Faisal Al-Yasseri (founder and chairman of Al-Diyar television channel), Ismael Zayer (Managing Editor at Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed newspaper) and Adnan Hussain (the noted writer and long time Saddam-regime opponent writing for Asharq Al-Awsat in London) as panelists.

Although the session started later than advertised, once it got going the panelists shared with us some surprising facts about how they see the Iraqi media as they live it, day in and day out. The most surprising factor to me is their adaptability to a scene without rules was and is painful! Imagine Al-Yasseri chasing government organisations for 6 months to notify them of his intention to start a television channel (notification, mind you, not seeking approval) and the absence of laws was also a deterrant to “real” journalism as there is no press and publication law, according to Zayer, which he still vehemently opposes, but is now insisting on the establishment of a ‘code of ethics’ that would bind all journalists.

Another surprising factor is the plethora of media outlets there are in Iraq: according to them, there are 26 satellite television stations, 40 terrestrial television stations and more than 100 newspapers including just a few tabloids! Try to compare that with what the scene was like just a few years ago. But all is not very happy, the whole media industry is in a flux; newspapers, television and radio channels have become far too politically motivated, with no real disclosure on who owns what, but a person can certainly deduce where a particular publication or television station is leaning. Apart from their political stances, a number of media outlets are clearly sectarian, even to the extent of using derogatory terms in which to call one sect or another. Some even go to the extent of inciting violence, and here is the biggest surprise to me: Iraqis – according to the panelists anyway – detest Al-Jazeera! Al-Jazeera is scene as nothing more than a terrorist mouth-piece which unashamedly encourage the continuation of violence in Iraq through its twisted reporting and its programs. The very same method has been adopted by a number of sectarian stations, which – Al-Azzawi says – had there been any liability laws, the vast majority of journalists and media persons would probably be thrown in prison not to be seen again.

According to Zayer again, there are quite a number publications which are indirectly owned by the government or political parties; more importantly, these government organs channels funds and advertising revenue to their preferred papers and not just ignoring others who do not share their views, but create a number of hurdles to cripple those which fell out of their favours. One such tactic is the “partial shutdown of districts/marshal law” which not only restricts the ability of newspapers to be printed, but completely throttles distribution. Therefore, with no money coming in, publishers continue to be unsure if they can continue to produce such a newspaper.

That restriction is by no means the exclusive domain of government; however, again Zayer stresses that if for instance Al-Sadr or his people get aggrieved because of a written article, then you could forget distributing your paper into their controlled territories in Baghdad and the south; while if you tick off the sunni leaders, you could forget about distributing your paper in parts of Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul.

The television landscape is not much different than newspapers, Al-Yasseri related to us that although on the books he has 291 employees at Al-Diyar television channel, he would get ecstatic if only 60 turn up for work! He is lucky that he does not have to resort to installing concrete defences around his station (which was the original Al-Jazeera headquarters in Baghdad previously) some of his employees paid with their lives reporting for the only live program he provides (the news): one reporter was killed in Fallujah by shooting, another got killed in Baghdad, and yet another was killed because it became known that he was carrying cash on him (US$13,000) to go buy a UPS for the station. Al-Yasseri believes that the last victim was murdered because someone at the station collaborating with outside criminal elements for the cash, this shows very clearly the lawlessness Iraq suffers from, and the disregard for human life there at the moment.

As to freedoms, it was agreed that although media is infinitely freer than it was in the previous era, there is no sense for that freedom if it is not coupled with a secure environment where a journalist continuously fears for his or her life. This was amply demonstrated by Adnan Hussain who read to us one of his regularly received death threats from Iraq from someone who took umbrage with Hussain’s criticism of Dr. Ja’afari, even though it should be noted that generally, when a journalist criticises someone, that criticism is not personal but most probably to the position he fills.