Global Policy Forum

Unfettered Media Denies Being Biased


By Peyman Pejman

Inter Press Service
September 17, 2004

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein and his dictatorial regime last year, one of the clearest signs that a new Iraq has emerged is the flourishing media business. But their coverage, and that of international Arabic-language satellite channels such as Al-Arabiye and Al-Jazeera, has been subject to much debate. U. S. and many Iraqi officials say the coverage has been biased. It has provoked violence, they allege. Media representatives say they just report news and it is not their fault much is awry in Iraq nowadays.

Although no exact figures are available, observers estimate that some 100 newspapers and news magazine are now published in the capital, Baghdad, alone. ''There is no requirement for opening a publication, and neither should there be,'' Ismail Zayer, editor and publisher of independent daily As-Sabah al-Jadid (New Morning) told IPS. ''But that means good has come with the bad. Anyone who has money is publishing something, even if it is for a short period of time until they run out of money.''

Zayer and other media watchers in Iraq estimate that perhaps all but a handful of the existing publications belong to numerous political parties and groups that have mushroomed since last year. ''On one hand, that is good because the audience gets to hear about something from five, six different perspectives,'' Zayer said. ''On the other hand, there is no telling if any of them is speaking the truth.''

Part of the reason why the print media has remained lackluster in the past year is that few people have been buying copies. Media watchers in Iraq say most publications do not sell more than a couple of thousand copies. Zayer says his paper sells about 10,000-15,000 copies a day and he is still losing money.

During Saddam's reign, there were no laws on journalistic ethics or code of conduct. The government controlled the media and only government-approved items were printed. ''Nowadays, anyone can say anything about anyone and get away with it. There is no repercussion. No accountability. That has added to a free-for-all season that, if not corrected, will be a disservice to the Iraqi society as a whole,'' says a western diplomat who asked he not be named.

Government officials say they plan to introduce to the transitional parliament laws on media governance and ethics in the coming months. Others argue that few people in current Iraq, including the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, have modern understanding of the need for an independent media and that people are entitled to receive information from the government.

Neither Allawi nor the interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, for example, has an official spokesperson. But, inheriting from the Saddam-era culture of centralised government, all interviews with ministers of defence and interior, as well as with various state ministers, have to be approved by the prime minister's office in advance. ''The challenges are not so much in legal, structural, and direct implementation. It is more in terms of understanding and functioning. Getting people to understand what it is all about,'' says Simon Haselock, senior media development and regulations advisor to the multi-national force.

Part of Haselock's job has been to engineer a transfer for the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), the television network created by the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority, to an independently-run public broadcasting service, something along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation or National Public Radio in the U.S. The United States, with some help from other donors, has committed 250 million dollar to the creation and running of the IMN and the new television station, also known as Iraqia.

But the U.S. funding, for the most part, will cease at the end of this year. After that it will be the Iraqi government's responsibility to fund the project. Many media watchers have expressed concern that the Allawi government might use the power of the purse to reign in on what is supposed to be an independently-run television station with its own board of governors. ''One of the problems is (that) you mention independence and people think antagonism,'' says Haselock. ''The very word independence is synonymous here with opposition and not neutrality and it does not even mean neutrality. News is news, without spin.''

But the controversy is not just about the Iraqi media. U.S. and Iraqi officials complain equally, and sometimes bitterly, about what they perceive to be biased coverage of the two leading Arab language satellite channels, Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. Washington and Baghdad officials have accused the two channels of only broadcasting negative reports and of inciting violence against U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. The government has closed down the operations of the two channels a number of times in the past year. Al-Jazeera is still banned from reporting live from Iraq.

The television channels deny they have a pronounced anti-U.S. policy. Neither do they accept the charge that their coverage might be tinted because almost all their staff is Iraqis unsympathetic toward an occupation force or a government they see as appointed and supported by the United States. ''We believe that we are doing our job (in a) balanced and neutral (way) all the time, but I think they want us not to cover explosions, accidents,'' says Wehad Yaqoub, Al-Arabiya manager in Iraq. ''They want us to show the news they want to see and this is not our job.''

He admits the negative coverage has been more than the positive ones, but says there is a reason for the imbalance. ''We have very plain orders that we should cover positive and negative news, but let me say it frankly, there has not been any positive news, especially last year,'' says Yaqoub.

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