The current state of Iraqi media reflects both the pluralism and the chaos of post-war Iraq. There is abundant freedom of expression, especially in northern Iraq, whose semi-autonomy since the early 1990s allowed the Kurds to establish non-Baathist media outlets several years ago. But a viable independent media with national reach has yet to develop. The main players in Iraq's emerging media scene are the local press, foreign television stations, and so-called small media—pamphlets, booklets, and audio and video cassettes.
Previously, the only newspapers available in central and southern Iraq were Baathist-owned. Now there are close to 150 local papers sold on the streets of Baghdad and Basra. While the proliferation of publications gives the impression of a thousand flowers blooming, however, without a professional, institutional and economic infrastructure few will be able to survive for long. As virtually all papers are owned by or affiliated with political parties, there is not yet an "independent" press. Although the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has penalized or closed down publications for publishing articles it deemed inflammatory, there is no real central control over the press and no clear legal framework. Weak reporting skills mean that what passes for news is usually closer to gossip; many newspapers simply copy stories reported on television. With the exception of the relatively well-funded Azzaman and Al Sabah, founded by exiles and supported by the CPA, newspapers have poor distribution networks and shaky finances. Most are not available outside the neighborhoods where they are published.
Because Iraq's literacy rate plummeted during the 1990s, television is a more accessible source of information than is the printed media for many Iraqis. Illegal under Saddam, satellite dishes proliferated immediately after the fall of his regime. Seeking to capitalize on Iraqis' thirst for new channels, the CPA set up a television station, Al Iraqiya. By most accounts, Al Iraqiya has been a major disappointment (reportedly it has the lowest rating of any television station watched in Iraq). Far more popular are foreign channels, such as pan-Arab satellite stations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the Iranian-owned station Al Alam, and the Lebanese Hizbollah-owned satellite channel Al Manar. Al Alam covers the news from a perspective that is broadly pro-Islamic, but not exclusively pro-Shiite. Al Manar is emerging as a more significant player, due to language and ethnic bonds between Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites. The station features a mix of political, social and religious programming combined with openly sentimental propaganda for Hizbollah. The news is primarily reports of conflict from the West Bank and Gaza and Iraq. Al Manar's often-repeated message is that the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq is equivalent to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Al Manar also claims that Israel is behind much of the violence in Iraq.
Even as Iraq enters the high-tech age, small media are playing a key role in shaping public opinion. Such material, much of it banned under Saddam, is no less effective for being discreet and informal. The Iranian revolution, famously, succeeded in using small media as instruments for social change. In Iraq, too, it comes with religious blessing, as it is disseminated mainly through religious networks. In the so-called Sunni triangle, the hotbed of anti-occupation sentiment, activists outside mosques distribute publications and audiocassettes with a religious imprint; many call on Iraqis to resist the occupation. In Shiite areas such as Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum, the followers of young firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr disseminate recordings of his speeches and sermons. Muqtada often exhorts his followers to prepare themselves to expel U.S. forces and seize power. The sidewalks of Najaf, a major center of Shiite religious authority, reflect the growing power struggle between the mainstream leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani and the more subversive program of Muqtada. Cassettes and booklets of competing clerics are displayed on mats for the faithful to collect.
A coherent media policy is unlikely to emerge before the planned transfer of power this summer from the CPA to an Iraqi administration. The CPA's attempts to enact a regulatory framework for independent media in Iraq have stalled, with the CPA seemingly first endorsing such a framework and then doing little to apply it. Lucrative contracts are currently on offer by the U.S. government in an effort to strengthen Al Iraqiya as a pro-American voice. This is likely to accompanied by U.S. attempts to restrict foreign satellite stations whose programming the U.S. finds objectionable.
In the coming months, as the struggle for power among Iraqis builds, so will the struggle for control of the media. With a flailing local press and television an overwhelmingly foreign-owned concern, the small media, with its low cost, easy availability, and popular appeal, is likely to be the site of the most intense battles for the hearts and minds of Iraqis.
Karim Alrawi is regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Internews Network, a non-governmental organization promoting media development in emerging democracies. Previously he was a journalist and editor for English and Arabic-language publications.