An Assessment of the State of the Media
Interview with Virginie Locussol
In an interview with “Iraqi Kurdistan Dispatch”, the head of the Middle East-North Africa section of the Paris-based international organization, Reporters Without Borders, discusses the state of the media in Iraq. She explains how the flow of information is almost totally controlled by the state in this country.
She also stresses the progress made, albeit with some difficulty, in the media in Iraqi Kurdish region, governed by the Kurds since 1991.
Iraqi Kurdistan Dispatch: How could one describe the evolution of and the current state of the media and of freedom of expression in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein?
Virginie Locussol: Since Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979 the media have been under quasi-total state control, as the Iraqi political system does not allow the existence of independent media. The outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq [1980-1988] was one of the determining factors which brought about an increase in state control.
During the Gulf War, in 1991, this censorship was extended to the international media who had come to cover the allied air strikes and the events which followed them. During this period dozens of foreign journalists were arrested and at least one was killed by Iraqi forces. That was also the year when two Iraqi journalists disappeared. Aziz al-Seyed Jasim, the editor of Al-Qadissiya, Al-Ghad and Al-Thawra [the official mouthpiece of the ruling Ba’ath party], was taken to a secret detention centre in February for having refused to write a book in the glory of Saddam Hussein. He never reappeared. Hashim Dharam, a journalist in the daily newspaper Al-Qadissiya, published by the Ministry of Defence, also disappeared without trace in April of the same year. He reportedly criticized the laws governing the press.
In April 1992, Saddam’s eldest son, Oudai Hussein, then aged 27, was “unanimously” elected head of the Iraqi Journalists’ Union. A year before, he had launched a new daily newspaper, Babil. This marked the beginning of the rise in influence of the President’s son, who, in the space of ten years, established control over information and propaganda.
Today a large number of the media are pledged to the regime through Ouday Hussein, who presides over the editorial boards of several weekly and daily publications. He is also in charge of audiovisual media – he actually runs one of the three official television channels, the most popular one, Shabab Television. Ouday Hussein writes numerous editorials, which espouse the ruling party line. All journalists are appointed by the Ministry of Information. Membership of the Journalists’ Union , on top of membership of the ruling Ba’th party, is obligatory. The Union committee decides on disciplinary sanctions, on promotions and on transfers from one publication to another. Reports from various sources testify to incidents of torture which are said to have taken place regularly on the premises of the Journalists’ Union and of the Iraqi Olympic Committee, another institution which Ouday Hussein presides over. The victims of torture are, among others, journalists whose loyalty to the party or to his person is in doubt.
In March 2000, the weekly publication Al Zaoura, owned by Ouday Hussein, published a list of thirty two writers and journalists who had left the country after the Gulf War and labelled them as “enemies”, accusing them of writing in opposition newspapers abroad or of publishing articles against the regime [in exile].
The Iraqi Journalists’ Union compiled a register of all journalists who had fled Iraq in the last ten years. In the year 2001 alone, nearly fifty journalists apparently left the country. However some were not so lucky. At the end of September 1999, Hashem Hasan, the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Al Thawra, was arrested by Iraqi security services at the Jordanian border. The journalist had decided to flee the country after receiving threats from Ouday Hussein: he had refused to take over the editorship of the magazine Arrafidayne. Like the majority of prisoners of conscience, he was tortured.
Over the last ten years many journalists have been arrested. Others have been executed. It nonetheless remains very difficult to provide much detailed information about them because of the difficulty involved in obtaining any information concerning the country’s interior affairs.
Iraqi law stipulates that any journalist who infringes the press code is liable to punishment which could range from a fine to life imprisonment or even to the death penalty; in case of an insult directed at the head of state, for example. On numerous occasions the regime has used this law in order to eliminate opponents.
IKD: In these conditions, how do foreign journalists carry out their work, and how is information from foreign sources dealt with?
Virginie Locussol: In such an environment, where information is so ruthlessly governed, foreign journalists are evidently not spared. Correspondents from the main international press agencies are all grouped together at the “press centre”, located at the Ministry of Information. Foreign journalists can quite easily obtain visas for Iraq but once they get to the capital, they are escorted twenty four hours a day by “bodyguard-translators”. The state hopes that by allowing them to visit hospitals and schools they will report on the disastrous consequences of the [international] embargo.
The only way for the Iraqi population to get information apart from that diffused by official propaganda is to listen to foreign radio services such as the Arabic service of Radio Monte Carlo, or the BBC. However, the news concerning Iraq which these radio stations broadcast is often jammed.
Installation, at personal initiative, of satellite dishes is categorically forbidden; offenders are liable to a fine of 500,000 dinars, and a six month prison sentence. Access to satellite channels is totally controlled and restricted. In fact one can only receive fourteen channels, most of them Arabic ones, which show for the most part music and sport, all carefully selected by the state and only available through subscription. The same goes for the internet, with restricted access to sites. It was not until this year that access from one’s home to state-authorised sites was allowed. Before, the population could access these sites in internet cafés, which are in any case under the strict surveillance of the secret police.
Electronic mail is provided by just one authorised server in the country, which is that of the Iraqi government. The use of other addresses, such as yahoo, hotmail etc., is forbidden.
This total control of the media, characterized by a ban on information from abroad and by the stifling of information within the country, allows the state to be the only maker and provider of information. This can result in rather grotesque situations: in August 1999, the daily newspaper Al-Joumhouriya published a survey in which 100% of those questioned supported the suspension of Iraqi cooperation with UNSCOM, the UN commission charged with the disarmament of Iraq. UNSCOM was considered, again by 100% of those questioned, to be part of a plot tool used by the Americans.
IKD: What action has Reporters Without Borders taken up until now in defence of freedom of expression in Iraq?
Virginie Locussol: Ever since the Gulf War Reporters Without Borders has been following the situation in Iraq closely, even though, as I emphasized earlier, information is particularly difficult to get hold of and confirm. The action taken by the organization is manifold. When we learn of the arrest or disappearance of a journalist we write to the Iraqi authorities to demand they free the journalist. Suffice to say we have never received any response from them. We also speak to the UN special raporteur on forced disappearances. In cases of torture we speak to the UN special raporteur on torture and mistreatment. The letters we send to the authorities are made public via the international press. Over the last few years we have been unable to get into Iraq because of lack of visas. On top of this we regularly launch information campaigns directed at the general public and have circulated, for example, lists of “Press freedom predators”, “Enemies of the internet”, and, more recently, the “Impunity blacklist”. Iraq has the privilege of appearing conspicuously on all three of these lists.
IKD: In the Iraqi region governed by the Kurds since 1991 the media have undergone a certain amount of development. What is your assessment?
Virginie Locussol: To say the least, the contrast between the territory controlled by Baghdad and that governed by the two Kurdish political formations [the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] is striking! I cannot think of another such case in the world, apart perhaps from Hong Kong and China. On the one hand you have a completely stifled press and on the other a multitude of media in which freedom of expression is tolerated.
Since 1991 the media scene in Iraqi Kurdistan has developed considerably. Today there are two hundred newspapers and magazines, two satellite television channels, around twenty local television channels and around ten radio stations, all for a territory the size of Switzerland. These media are run by groups as diverse as the two main parties, the KDP and the PUK, Islamic parties, the Turkoman and Christian communities, the Women Union and also the Kurdish Communist Party. You come across newspapers written in Kurdish, but also in Arabic, in Turkoman, and in Assyrian. Moreover, two journalists’ unions, which boast hundreds of members, were founded in 2001.
Although most of the media are either directly or indirectly linked to the two main parties or to other political parties which are authorised in Iraqi Kurdistan, there are some independent newspapers. The weekly paper Hawlati is a good example. This newspaper, run by a small team, was founded in May 2000. Today it is distributed in both the DPK zone and in the PUK zone and has known a great success notably because of its readiness to criticize politicians.
This press may be remarkably dynamic but that does not mean that the situation is ideal. These youthful media are confronted with numerous problems: unreliable distribution, equipment which is sometimes unsuitable, a lack of funding, journalists who are badly trained for the job, if at all. And then there is the self-censorship which continues to occur in editorial offices.
Beyond these difficulties there are more serious threats to these media. For almost a year now a number of journalists have been speaking of threats received from certain Islamist movements based at the Iranian border, such as the Jund al-Islam group [or the Soldiers of Islam, the group was founded on 1 September 2001 and changed its name to Ansar al-Islam, the Supporters of Islam, in December 2001. The group is suspected of having links with both Al-Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence]. In September 2001, this group attacked villages under PUK control and massacred a number of PUK combatants, provoking a large-scale military confrontation between the two. The majority of the Kurdish media condemned the acts of this group and labelled them as terrorists.
IKD: In a resolution voted through last May, the European Parliament called for support of the Iraqi Kurdish administration’s efforts to establish and strengthen a civil society. In your opinion, what kind of support could be given to develop the region’s media, which is an important factor in the creation of a civil society?
The first priority would be not to develop the media in this zone – as there are already many of them – but rather to strengthen their foundations. As we have already discussed, there are many problems with them. One of the major problems concerns the training of journalists. As is the case with many neighbouring countries, either the journalists have undergone a training of poor quality or they have no training at all. On this point the role that the young generation of journalists can play is a very important one. They have not experienced the era of “journalism under Saddam”. Unlike their elders, they do not have a self-censorship reflex. Therefore it is necessary to develop training courses abroad for these young journalists, as has already been done recently upon an initiative of the Human Rights International Alliance, and other organizations.
Also, the publishers of these newspapers should be encouraged to find independent funds so as to avoid depending as less as possible upon the existing political parties. In this respect the European Commission would be well advised to give financial aid to the media. For there can be no doubt that in the years to come the press in Kurdistan can serve as a veritable model for neighbouring countries.
Copyright 2007 The Iraq Foundation. All rights reserved.