Since 2003, the televised media environment in Iraq has witnessed dramatic changes. Whereas Iraqis were once forced to choose between only two local television stations — one administered by the Ministry of Information and the other run by the son of then-President Saddam Hussein — they now have dozens of satellite channels reporting on national affairs.
One of the most noteworthy phenomena in the initial months following the fall of Saddam's regime was the rush of Iraqi families to purchase satellite dishes — a trend from which even extremely impoverished Iraqis were not immune. This trend reflected a deep hunger on the part of many Iraqis to learn about the outside world from which they had been cut off by the old regime's extremely strict official censorship. Iraq undertook a rapid and astounding transition from a model of censorship resembling what George Orwell described in his novel 1984 toward what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described as a state of "untidy” freedom.
In a short period of time, Iraqi satellite television channels began to vie with the larger pan-Arab channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya for coverage of Iraqi affairs. The first of these channels was the official Al-Iraqiyya, founded in hopes that it would become an Iraqi version of the BBC, a public, independent channel funded by state coffers. Then other channels began to appear, like Al-Sharqiya, Al-Baghdadiya, Al-Sumeriyyah, all of which were private projects, even though some of them secured foreign patronage.
There is a widespread belief that the official Iraqi channel has lost its independence and been completely reduced to subservience to the will and dictates of the government, even to the point that members of parliament have threatened to block funding for its operating budget. In similar fashion, most other Iraqi channels have become captive to political influences either hostile or sympathetic toward the government. Many have concluded that the media outlets in Iraq are actually deepening the country's ethnic and sectarian divides, rather than working to overcome them.
Further, many Iraqi TV channels do not enjoy sufficient experience or resources to compete on airwaves already rife with more advanced alternatives. Some polls have shown that nearly 46% of Iraqi TV viewers prefer pan-Arab channels because they exhibit a higher degree of professionalism than the local channels. Whereas entertainment channels that do not offer news content can attract a multisectarian and multiethnic viewing base, news channels generally draw upon a particular ethnic or sectarian segment of the population whose coverage it favors, further reinforcing the political divisions that already afflict the media environment.
Nevertheless, this discouraging polarization is mitigated by some encouraging transformations that suggest that the problem may not lie with the public as much as with the message and the nature of the market that the satellite channels themselves have created. In recent years, one of Al-Baghdadiya's political programs has come to attract high ratings among Iraqi viewers across sectarian lines: “The Ninth Studio.” “The Ninth Studio” does not rely for its success on an enormous budget or sophisticated technical capabilities. Rather, it tends to deal frankly and directly with issues that concern the ordinary audience, and to do so with a high degree of independence. “The Ninth Studio” tends to focus on issues pertaining to the corruption and inefficiency of governmental institutions, and generally offers scathing criticism of Iraqi officials, without indulging in the discourse of sectarian prejudice. The program's anchor, Anwar al-Hamdani, who studied political science at Baghdad University, uses a rhetoric that is often courageous and occasionally populist. The program has supported the popular campaign against the exaggerated privileges accorded to members of the Iraqi parliament and other officials. Hamdani also directed withering criticism toward the Baghdad municipality for its handling of the rain crisis of last November, and recently shone a spotlight on a new scandal related to the imported shipments of expired biscuits that were being distributed to students in some elementary schools.
Of course, the program is not without its defects. Its emotional language sometimes detracts from its role as a model for investigative journalism. Likewise, some have accused it of favoring certain political factions, like the Sadrist Movement, and focusing its criticism on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies. But websites closely affiliated with the prime minister have accused the anchor of possessing Baathist tendencies and being of "Palestinian origins," in addition to other personal attacks.
Despite the absence of sectarian language on “The Ninth Studio,” and the difficulty of discerning any sectarian bias in its rhetoric, Iraq's Media and Communications Commission temporarily shut down its office in September on the pretext of it being a threat to public peace. Most likely, this decision came in response to governmental pressures, and as a consequence of the show's earlier criticism of the commission.
Despite its shortcomings, this program has been successful, and this indicates two important things. First, Iraqi viewers actually desire a platform that focuses on their day-to-day concerns and issues, and many would prefer such a platform to those who simply spew sectarian incitement. Second, it is possible for Iraqi media outlets devoid of political and sectarian bias to shape Iraqi public opinion and be capable of defying attempts by the political elite to entrench ethnic and sectarian divisions. The problem is that neutral media organizations usually lack sufficient financial support, and are exposed to pressures by officials who are unhappy with their content, without being able to rely on independent institutions capable of defending them.
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