Historic research in Iraq highlights value of independent media

Burdened by more than a decade of violence and conflict, people in Iraqi Kurdistan long for unbiased and credible media with coverage free from the interests of political parties and sectarian groups. Their want for open-minded and courageous media coverage is one of the main findings in the first-ever market study of Iraqi media

Political infighting, escalating conflicts, and a deteriorating security situation are common topics in Iraq’s media. But it is not what most Iraqi Kurds want to read about. Health, education, family life, religion, local issues, and entertainment are what really matter finds the survey.

Over the summer, 1,000 Kurdish speaking citizens in the northern Iraqi region filled out a detailed questionnaire, allowing them to express their views on everything from media habits and brand perception, to views and recommendations on specific content areas.

Implemented by research teams from IMS’ partner, the Kurdish Institute for Elections, the readership survey is the first of its kind in Iraq.

Media outlets under partisan control

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression improved significantly and thousands of independent media outlets sprang up.

In recent years, the political polarisation and sectarian conflicts in the country have put almost all remaining media outlets under the control of political parties or sectarian groups which employ the media as a method for domination in their scramble for power.

Some of the few remaining private, independent media outlets that have survived take part in IMS’ efforts to enhance the commercial sustainability. The uneven playing field on which these outlets exist have them pitted against media funded by the political parties and sectarian groups which have no shortage of funds.

With the market research study carried out in Iraqi Kurdistan, the independent media outlets gain valuable insight into how to develop new products, increase revenue, and improve their coverage by listening to the needs of their audiences. This provides for a slightly more even field when competing with the partisan media.

The value of independence

Asos Hardi, the editor-in-chief of the independent weekly newspaper Awene is already looking into taking a more targeted approach to sales, marketing, and distribution and to relaunch his paper with more focus on the areas recommended by the people surveyed.

Together with the daily Hawlati, Awene remains the most widely read and respected newspaper in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is no little feat considering cheap or even free party owned papers are widely available throughout the region.

Assessing the value of the media outlets’ independence to readers, the survey finds that the vast majority of people prefer newspapers “open to different opinions, also when I don’t agree”, rather than those belonging to political parties.

The survey also shows that ineffective sales and distribution of newspapers is the greatest barrier for the independent media outlets. Half of those surveyed say that it is difficult to buy a newspaper close to their home even in the biggest cities such as Sulaymaniyah.

IMS is working closely with partners in Iraqi Kurdistan to use findings from the study to improve the professional standards and sustainability of the independent media in the region.