Saudi media group MBC announced in early February that it will launch a new TV channel — MBC Iraq — aimed at Iraqi viewers. Soon after the announcement, a number of angry responses emerged in the Iraqi media and among political figures, which led MBC to defend its plan.
The MBC group generally produces entertainment shows and social content, which will also be aired on MBC Iraq that is scheduled to launch on the evening of Feb. 17.
MBC’s television operations are funded by Saudi businessmen, many of whom are close to the Saudi royal family.
According to the programming schedule released by MBC to the media, the majority of content aimed at Iraqi viewers will be entertainment-based. The group has not yet announced any programs that are political in nature.
Despite the fact that MBC’s schedule is thus far free of political content, politicians — particularly those from Shiite parties — have railed about the launch of a Saudi channel that targets the Iraqi public.
The Sadiqoon parliamentary bloc, an affiliate of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which has an armed wing, has alleged that the channel will broadcast "toxic" content, with the movement accusing the Saudi media group of supporting the Islamic State when it invaded three Iraqi cities in June 2014.
Similarly, the youth movement aligned with the leader of Iraq’s State of Law Coalition, Nouri al-Maliki, has claimed that Saudi Arabia established the new channel in order to "interfere in Iraqi affairs."
In reality, however, the angry revolt against the Saudi channel stems from the struggle between axis powers in the Middle East, which is particularly present in Iraq, with support divided between the Saudi side, sponsored by the United States, and Iranian-backed parties.
As Alia Nassif, a parliamentarian from the State of Law Coaltion, stated, "The axis conflict plays a prominent role in the acceptance or rejection of the Saudi TV channel."
While seeking to distance herself from the conflict, Nassif said in an interview with Al-Monitor, "Saudi Arabia's political history with Iraq arouses suspicion around the launch of a TV channel aimed at Iraqi viewers."
She added, "Iraqis cannot forget the fatwas issued by Saudi clerics that incited political developments in Iraq. Therefore we fear the airing of similar content that provokes violence or killing in the country."
Responding to the debate over MBC Iraq, Zaytoun al-Dulaimi, a member of parliament from the Iraqi National Alliance, said the issue was an "unnecessary whirlwind." In an interview with Al-Monitor, Dulaimi noted that she and her family were "following the Saudi channel because they are airing nice, entertaining programs."
She added, "The political conflict between axes should not influence everything, including which popular TV channels are on the market."
Iraq now appears to be a focal point for the feuding axes to the conflict in the Middle East, with both parties seeking to control it, or at least, garnering support.
Iran funds numerous Iraqi media platforms, in particular satellite TV channels that broadcast political content, openly promoting its policies and the brand of political Islam it seeks to spread in the region.
The program schedule announced by MBC for its Iraqi audience, by contrast, includes three comedy programs featuring a selection of Iraqi entertainers, as well as a music show that hosts various Iraqi celebrities.
"While MBC Iraq is not a political channel, Saudi Arabia can still transmit a number of provocative messages through its entertainment programs," Nassif said.
Dulaimi, however, does not perceive any danger around the issue, insisting that "all this debate is a gross exaggeration of the matter."
Iraqi journalist Safa Khalaf nonetheless claimed that "Saudi Arabia must have a political agenda in designating a special TV channel for Iraq." He told Al-Monitor, "The Saudis have begun to think differently about how they deal with Iraqi affairs. For the past decade and a half, they adopted a failed sectarian approach, but now they want to use soft power to gain acceptance in the Iraqi street."
Khalaf added, "Iran has, for example, more than 50 Iraqi satellite stations broadcasting its strategic propaganda, but it is barely spreading. It does not air the type of entertainment programs that Iraqis are anticipating from MBC, funded by Saudi Arabia."
The director of the Journalistic Freedom Observatory in Iraq, Ziad al-Ajili, told Al-Monitor, "The use of the media as a front in political disagreements is damaging. But despite this any satellite channel operating within Iraq that abides by the constitution and works according to professional norms should not be attacked."
He said, "Incitement campaigns by political parties has risked the lives of many journalists and led to the destruction of their offices. Politicians must abide by the law and not level accusations at the media without evidence."
Nassif believes that MBC Iraq will face threats when opening its office in Iraq, due to the issue of its funding sources — a development that Ajili also warned against. "Before its opening, MBC Iraq faces the risk of becoming a political target," he said, calling on the government to "protect all media outlets working in Iraq, including MBC Iraq."
Ultimately, the media today plays a significant role in political conflicts, both nationally and regionally. The main concern, however, is that media offices and staff will be targeted as a result of the deepening political conflict that is being sustained by regional powers in Iraq, which will ensure that Iraq remains on the list of countries where the media is under threat.