Local media both victim and perpetrator in Iraq crisis

Coerced by violent attacks and threats, much of Iraq’s media are failing their professional obligations and fuelling the escalating conflict

“The independent, professional media in Iraq has failed,” said Osama al-Habahbeh, IMS Programme Manager for Iraq. “Journalists are forced to take sides in the conflict. They risk losing their lives if they don’t.”

Four Iraqi journalists were killed over the summer after resisting threats and maintaining their critical reporting, said IMS’ partner in Iraq, the media freedom watchdog Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO).

“Media outlets which previously sought to stay as independent as they could have now taken sides in the conflict between the government and Islamic State, and more generally between Shia and Sunni,” said Osama al-Habahbeh.

“When a Shi’ite is killed he is labeled a martyr, while a dead Sunni will be described merely as dead.

“The opposite is the case in for instance Tikrit’s Sunni-dominated media where IS fighters are labeled revolutionaries while their opponents are called terrorists.”

The current decline in independence and professional integrity is the culmination of several months of severe difficulties facing the country’s media.

Defying all odds, Iraq and in particular Iraqi Kurdistan saw the emergence after 2003 of a range of independent media outlets striving to live up to international professional standards. But rising economic pressure due to a severe drop in government sponsored advertising and the deepening sectarian divide in the country are now tearing them apart.

The little media not owned by political actors or otherwise linked to political power and funding, have since the beginning of the year been forced to back political factions to secure their own survival.

“Journalists critical of the government are regarded as traitors and as collaborating with the enemy,” said Osama al-Habahbeh.

IMS’ partner, the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory reports that some TV journalists have worn military uniforms in the studio to prove their allegiance to the government. Others have worn black clothes to show their support for Islamic State.

The deepened divide in the media is hugely problematic not only for the media and for journalists, but also for Iraqis more generally.

“When the media strays from its professional obligations and aligns itself with political and extremists groups there is a danger it may bring about more violence and deepen the conflict even further,” said Osama al-Habahbeh.

Islamic State has previously communicated to the Iraqi media that it will allow local journalists to send reports to regional and international news agencies. This is widely seen as a move to ensure that their military victories and territorial gains are conveyed to the rest of world.

According to the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), Islamic State is monitoring the local media’s news reports closely and keeps lists of local journalists to ensure their reporting are aligned with the interests of the jihadist group.

“It [Islamic State] treats the all journalists as ‘enemies’ or ‘potential traitors collaborating with the enemy’,” said JFO.

IMS has been actively supporting the Iraqi media since 2005. An important dimension of the IMS Iraq programme is conflict resolution, uniting political adversaries in the media sector.

As the conflict continues to worsen and sectarian divides deepen, also in the media, IMS is focusing its efforts on bringing together the few Iraqi media outlets that have yet to give in to the immense pressure they are faced with.

“We are bringing together independent journalists who have fled Baghdad, Southern Iraq as well as IS-controlled areas to encourage them to stand together and bring unity to the media sector,” said Osama al-Habahbeh. “In this process we are reaching out to all independent, professional journalists whatever their ethnic or religious backgrounds may be.”

IMS is also increasing its focus on the safety of journalists and strengthening its support to independent media outlets’ efforts in marketing and sales to enable them to maintain their financial independence, and in turn to uphold their professional standards and editorial independence.