A network for social media activists in Iraq

On 13 May 2011, bloggers along with other Iraqi social media and civil society activists participated in a meeting that resulted in the initiation of the “Iraqi Network for Social Media”

By Kristine Kristensen, IMS

Inernational Media Support arranged the meeting, held at the American University of Sulaymaniya

– I am really thrilled to be one of the first participants in developing such an important project in Iraq, says Mahdi Abdullah, a Kurdish blogger.

Social media activism in Iraq on the rise

Since February 2011, several Iraqi cities have witnessed demonstrations calling for reforms to fight corruption and improve social services.  These developments have had a significant impact on the media scene in Iraq and the Kurdish region.

Like elsewhere in the Middle East, youth have been the driving force behind innovation, creativity and desires expressed online through blogs and facebook, as well as being active on the streets.

Estimates of 700,000 Facebook users in Iraq indicate that some one-third of Iraq’s Internet users use social networking platforms. According to the media research firm Intermedia’s Survey of 2010, 21% of adults use the Internet to gather news.

A new culture of awareness

Several of the protesters in Iraq have been attacked for using mobile phones to cover the demonstrations.

– Finally, the Iraqi youth have started to appreciate the value of recording the reality of the ground. They started using their mobile phones for social change, says San Saravan, an independent filmmaker and activist.

San Saravan is also the founder of an online media activism group, attracting an international community of people who works in different contexts to promote the use of social media for social change.

In Baghdad, a group of bloggers have been the front figures in organizing and covering the demonstrations. Haydar Hamzoz, a young student and blogger, is one of the contributors to a blog called Iraqi Streets for Change, which was created with the purpose of covering the demonstrations.

– We want to educate young people in the importance of demonstrating in a peaceful way and use media as an art of self-expression, says Haydar Hamzoz.

In April, Hamzoz was attacked and beaten by the security forces during a demonstration in Baghdad. Yet he is determined to fight for his right to express himself, which is exactly the core of Internet activism.  Through blogging and online activism, people can take control of their own narrative.

The most urgent and obvious challenge in the Iraqi media scene is the lack of media freedom and the attacks on journalists, which have increased dramatically since the beginning of 2011. This has particularly been the case in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to a report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more than 150 Iraqi Kurdish Journalists have been injured or attacked in the recent months.

Interaction between social media and traditional media

Journalism has evolved dramatically thanks to “online reporting”, where everyone can be a reporter. Especially in countries, where coverage of events by journalists can be dangerous, social media offers alternative opportunities to news reporting.

Chiman Salh, chief editor of Kurdistan Online, explains that by going on Facebook with her online newspaper, she has not only been given an opportunity to reach a much bigger audience, she has also been given “correspondents” in all corners of the society, as her facebook-followers provide her with pictures and news stories.

IMS has been actively supporting Iraqi media since 2005, focusing on capacity building and business development for the Iraqi Press Print. The launch of Iraqi Network for Social Media marks the beginning of a new component of the programme. This will be designed to address the increased importance of the role of social media in reform and society building, as well as strengthening links and interaction between social media and traditional mainstream media.

– The purpose of the network is to bring the young bloggers together and help them develop their talents. The network will also prepare a code of conduct for itself, says Osama al-Habahbeh, the IMS coordinator for Iraq.