The transformation of Iraq’s political system following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein raised expectations for the transformation of Iraq’s media landscape. Iraqis yearned for an independent media that would play a positive role in their daily lives after decades of state control over the media. These hopes were however short lived as the different voices that surfaced immediately after the invasion were subsequently muzzled. The number of media outlets steadily decreased and became dominated by opportunistic political parties. Journalism in Iraq has since faced some of its darkest days, with attacks on journalists on the rise, especially during political upheaval.
During Saddam’s Baath Party rule, journalists were forced to distribute the regime’s message without a semblance of independence. There were only three television channels and five newspapers – all were affiliated with the Iraqi regime and sang the same tune. The government also prohibited the installation of satellite dishes, which would have allowed Iraqis access to international news outlets.
The 2003 U.S.-led invasion opened the space for media. The former employees of the Iraq Ministry of Information, around 7,000 individuals, moved to expand the journalistic space. Within three years “hundreds of new publications, television stations, and radio channels” emerged in “an unparalleled media free-for-all involving a broad range of Iraqi and regional media forces.” When an official in the journalists’ union was asked how many newspapers were being printed in Iraq, he declined to answer because it was difficult to ascertain. This opening, however, did not last.
Iraqi journalists lacked financial independence and were continuously targeted because of their coverage. Media in Iraq, due to decades of dictatorship, was dependent on the government for funding. Because the advertisement market lagged behind the changes in the media world, sufficient revenue could not be generated from the private sector. Further, the newspapers could not benefit financially from online editions, as the number of internet subscribers was limited and online advertisements were lacking. The income for media outlets was limited mainly to government subsidies and contributions from international donors. Furthermore, with increasing insecurity and lack of rule of law, journalists were an easy target for various political forces. Within five years, more than 120 journalists and 50 media support workers were killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Because independent publishers and journalists lacked the financial resources and were intimidated, political parties around 2006-07 began taking control of Iraq’s media outlets, financing them largely through party funds, which many observers believe are sourced to embezzled public funds. These political parties prevented opposing views in the coverage, promoting reporting that benefitted their political agendas. According to a report from the Open Society Institute, powerful media outlets a few years after the U.S.-led invasion “coalesced around ethno-political groups in Iraq” that had “print, radio and TV communications at their disposal.” While much has changed in Iraq since 2006-07, when this initial journalistic coalescing took place, there remain ethno-sectarian and political markers in Iraq’s journalistic landscape today that hearken back to this formative period. The Sunni political parties own al-Burhan, Dijlah, and al-Fallujah. Kurdish parties run iPLUS and Kurdistan TV. And Shia political parties own numerous channels, including al-Furat, al-Ahd, al-Taif, and al-Itijah. The vast majority of TV channels are owned by the political parties, and they control the content and flow of information. The issue of sectarian or ethnic tone in this journalism is complicated, given the cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic political coalitions that are a reality of Iraqi politics, but there is an assumption throughout the media, understood by all and backed up by the threat of force, that the party barons that control these newspapers, whether Shia, Kurdish, or Sunni, will not permit any criticism or scrutiny of the manner in which business, politics, and governance take place in their regions.
The political parties are similarly active on social media. Thousands of social media accounts and websites masquerade as news outlets to propagate political messages and attack rivals. Militias such as Kataib Hezbollah have spent millions of dollars to increase their social media influence through digital manipulation, managing fake accounts, and spreading propaganda.
The political parties, especially those with allied militias, have targeted journalists to prevent meaningful coverage of the declining sociopolitical conditions in the country. A 2005 survey conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists declared Iraq the most dangerous country for journalists in the world, and 15 years later it was ranked the second deadliest in a report by Reporters Without Borders. The security situation for journalists particularly deteriorated in 2019 as demonstrators took to the streets. Protests in several provinces threatened the grip of the political parties on the country, and, in response, these parties and militia elements answering to them targeted the media to prevent coverage of the events. Journalists on several occasions were attacked, kidnapped, and threatened. Many were killed, such as journalist Ihab al-Wazni in Karbala and a reporter and cameraman in Basra. When media outlets did cover the protests, they did not do so in an independent manner; some used the coverage as an opportunity to blackmail politicians or highlight their own dissatisfaction over conditions or the political process. According to the Association of the Defense of Freedom of Speech in Iraq, in 2020 over 300 violations against journalists were committed, including death threats, armed attacks, detentions, and beatings. International media coverage of these demonstrations was mostly neutral as Iraqi media became polarized regarding the demonstrations.
Conditions for journalists and press freedom only seem to be worsening. In the 2022 edition of Reporters Without Borders’ Word Press Freedom Index, Iraq ranked 172 out of 180 countries, declining from 163 in the 2021 edition. The repression of independent media is directly linked to the continuous deterioration of the political, economic, and social spheres of Iraq. Militias, terrorist groups, and even the government for the past two decades have opposed any independent voices that shed light on the dire conditions in the country and on the specific political forces and decision making responsible. Instead, media in Iraq is marked by biased coverage that distracts attention and either turns a blind eye on corruption and misconduct by the political elite or fails to look critically at the root causes and point fingers. The domination of the media by political groups allows them to control the flow of information and avoid meaningful coverage of their misdeeds. And rather than informing the public, major media outlets are used to settle political scores.