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How the Islamic State is winning the media war

Is covering the Islamic State’s activities a legitimate public service or just propaganda that serves the extremist group?
A 3D plastic representation of the Twitter and Youtube logo is seen in front of a displayed ISIS flag in this photo illustration in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 3, 2016. Iraq is trying to persuade satellite firms to halt Internet services in areas under Islamic State's rule, seeking to deal a major blow to the group's potent propaganda machine which relies heavily on social media to inspire its followers to wage jihad. Picture taken February 3, 2016. To match Insight MIDEAST-CRISIS/IRAQ-INTERNET

Faced with what has been often described as the world’s most resourceful and sophisticated terror organization, Iraq’s news media outlets have stumbled in how to cover the Islamic State (IS). The country’s news media appear to have unwillingly assisted IS in disseminating some of its gruesome propaganda releases, thus enabling it to achieve broader reach and possibly even impact.

IS brutality and its dramatic expansion in Iraq over the last couple of years has posed a major challenge for Iraqi media outlets. Is covering the group’s activities a legitimate public service or an extension of its own jihadi propaganda?

While media editors and managers at major Iraqi news outlets are aware of the ethical debate surrounding the use of propaganda materials by terrorist groups, and especially graphic content, a combination of political agendas and lack of rigorous editorial oversight appear to hamper the translation of that knowledge into practice.

“IS media products are a new and grave challenge for the Iraqi media,” Ali al-Sarayi, the editor-in-chief of Iraqi Media House, an organization that monitors Iraqi media outlets' performance, told Al-Monitor. “Iraqi media has to craft a new language and a new strategy to confront IS propaganda and its big media machine.”

He lamented the use of IS propaganda as a widespread phenomenon in Iraq's news media and said disseminating such materials is insensitive or plain traumatizing at times.

A quick search on websites and YouTube channels of some of the mainstream Iraqi news outlets shows they have failed, to varying degrees, to exercise the due level of editorial diligence when dealing with graphic IS propaganda content.

Alsumaria, an Arabic-language media network that runs a popular TV channel and online operation, appears to have been largely lax in terms of its approach to IS propaganda. On May 30, 2015, Alsumaria ran a video on its YouTube channel showing in full detail IS' execution of a minor somewhere in Syria.

In its coverage of IS' massacre in June 2014 of allegedly around 1,700 Shiite military personnel near the city of Tikrit, Alsumaria has repeatedly shown distressing images of IS herding the captured military cadets in highly humiliating conditions.

Hameed Qassim, who served as Alsumaria network's news supervisor until the end of 2015, plays down the outlet’s use of IS propaganda. Qassim told Al-Monitor, “Maybe in the beginning such things happened … But we tried to resolve this issue. Of course we are a big institution and it is not easy to control everything. Our criteria were complying with human values … and journalistic and professional codes of ethics.”

Qassim and other Alsumaria editors say they are aware of IS’ “terrorist agenda” and how it seeks to plant fear and create major psychological impact on the public. But despite statements by Qassim and other senior editors, the outlet still appears to be inconsistent in its application of ethical and professional guidelines with regard to IS propaganda.

Efforts by terrorist organizations to exploit media to seek attention, recognition and legitimacy in the eyes of the public are nothing new and have been the subject of much research.

Attempting not to fall behind in covering what might attract the public's attention, traditional and digital media outlets sometimes end up unwillingly acting as a force multiplier allowing IS to reach millions more.

Similar to Arabic-language news outlets, many Kurdish outlets have, albeit unintentionally, ended up serving IS propaganda goals. In the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Rudaw, a major news network that launched in 2013 and is funded by Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, for months aired and published scenes from IS' graphic propaganda materials.

When the jihadi organization released a gruesome video in February 2015 showing how it burned alive Muath al-Kaseasbeh, a downed Jordanian pilot, Rudaw ran highly graphic portions of it on TV and its popular websites. (It later deleted a video with graphic content from its website.)

Hemin Lihony, the head of Rudaw's digital service, justified their decision to show Kaseasbeh's burning by saying at the beginning of the report that they wanted Kurdish audiences to know the true face of IS.

In October 2015, Rudaw revised its editorial policy on IS, deciding to no longer run graphic content that might be deemed by audiences as disturbing and offensive propaganda. Lihony said they initially ran graphic IS-produced content to show the barbaric nature of the group to Kurdish audiences.

“If Kaseasbeh's video was released today, we would not run those images or would blur them because people now know what a brutal group IS is,” Lihony told Al-Monitor.

There is indeed evidence that suggests Rudaw has stuck to its editorial policy with regard to graphic materials produced by IS. For instance, while the network ran disturbing images of a member of the Kurdish peshmerga forces moments before he was beheaded by a masked IS militant in January 2015, it has in more recent cases refrained from showing images of peshmerga prisoners being executed by IS or opted for not showing their faces.

Sarayi said the country's news outlets have largely had the wrong approach to IS propaganda. “When it comes to IS propaganda, the Iraqi media's approach is mostly emotional rather than strategic and farsighted,” he said. “They think by running such propaganda they will gain more sympathy for IS victims and demonstrate IS’ atrocities and violence to the audiences. But the outcome is perhaps the opposite because at the end they are propagating IS' power and viciousness.”

This, Sarayi said, “was apparent in the widespread sense of fear among many sections of Iraqi society when IS expanded into the country in mid-2014. Many civilians fled and members of the security forces did not put up much resistance as IS' reputation for brutality had preceded it.” 

Even outlets with direct links to the government have been fluctuating in their strategy in dealing with IS propaganda material. The Iraqi Media Network (IMN) was designed as Iraq's public broadcaster with the intent that it would one day become Iraq's BBC. However, the outlet has become more of a state broadcaster reflecting the government or ruling coalition's views and interests.

IMN-affiliated outlets have run graphic and insensitive scenes taken from IS showing mass executions of Shiite military personnel in Salahuddin province or snapshots showing beheadings. Reflecting a common thinking among Iraqi media managers, the network's editors say the aim has been to “show the true nature of IS to the world.”

IMN's managers say they do not have an all-encompassing rule for IS propaganda and deal with each case according to its traits and how it serves the network's mission.

“In the case of the Jordanian pilot's execution by IS, we showed it so that the Arab public opinion would learn the truth of what IS is and what it stands for,” Jafar Wanan, IMN's former chief news editor who served until late last year, told Al-Monitor. “We did this to provoke Arabs against IS and to show the group targets everybody."

Among major news media institutions in the country, the Kurdish-language NRT TV and digital service stand out for having approached IS propaganda with a clear-cut policy from the beginning that prohibited the use of graphic IS-produced materials.

Twana Osman, the chairman of the Nalia Media Group that owns NRT, said shortly after IS occupied large parts of Iraq in mid-2014 that new guidelines were set for the newsroom. “We generally have a policy not to run scenes from graphic videos produced by IS because these are obviously meant for psychological warfare,” Osman told Al-Monitor. “We are in a state of war with IS. If we run those materials, we will assist IS to achieve its political and psychological objectives.”

Osman said the policy is about videos, but even if a graphic photo initially makes it to the website, it will be likely removed after the staff notice it.

Multiple searches on NRT's website for major IS atrocities did not render any results that contained graphic images. For instance, when reporting IS' execution of a number of Kurdish peshmerga forces in late September, NRT only ran an image containing the channel's logo. It also did not show any scenes from IS' burning of the Jordanian pilot.

“Before IS' expansion in Iraq, the group had already won the media [war] by making us all so scared of them. We had contributed to that victory unknowingly by spreading their propaganda,” Osman concluded.

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