With sanctions lifted, Saddam Hussein removed from power, and Kurdistan the most secure place in Iraq, Kurdish media have unprecedented potential to thrive. Kurdistan is experiencing an explosion of investment and trade, thanks to Kurdish businessmen returning from the Diaspora, Turkish and Iranian companies eager to enter a new market, and Baghdad businesses seeking a respite from kidnappings, car bombs and insurgent raids. Despite this seemingly favorable media environment, however, Kurdish journalism appears hobbled by an "old Iraq" mentality and has been slow to capitalize on new opportunities.
Kurdistan experienced the media free-for-all now sweeping the rest of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war, when the region gained autonomy from Baghdad and a plethora of new publications burst onto the scene. Fourteen years later, the two main Kurdish parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose parallel administrations each govern about half of Iraqi Kurdish territory—dominate the broadcast and print media. In addition, the KDP and PUK subsidize smaller political parties and consequently control their media operations, as well.
The two parties publish the region's only daily newspapers, the KDP's Khabat and the PUK's Kurdistani New, and run vast publishing houses and terrestrial and satellite television channels that reach Kurds in Iraq and beyond. These outlets remain party mouthpieces: anything printed or broadcast is carefully checked for adherence to party interests. Moreover, party media journalists report that in addition to their long-standing hesitation to criticize powerful neighbors Iran and Turkey, now they also must take care not to publish anything that might insult the United States, Shiite Arabs, or nearby Kirkuk's many ethnic groups. One editor complained that Kurdish papers always must use the full title of Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, "Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani," to avoid offending Shiites, while most of the Iraqi press simply writes "Al Sistani." Party media therefore still trade in the safe, "red carpet" style of journalism so prevalent in the Middle East, a style long on platitudes and short on substance.
Iraqi Kurdistan's nearly one dozen independent newspapers do not suffer from such editorial timidity. They are far more inclined to tackle sensitive social issues such as honor killings and to criticize Kurdish and national government policies. Readers turn to them for information they know the party papers will not print. Yet, like the party-affiliated papers, nearly all have a circulation of under 5,000 in a region with nearly four million Kurdish speakers. Most also tend toward sensationalism and often inaccurate reporting. They have bloated editorial staffs and, despite their nominally independent profiles, depend on direct or indirect financial support from the major parties and the Kurdish administrations.
An exception is Hawlati, an independent weekly based in Sulaimaniyah. The paper, now four years old, boasts a circulation of 15,000, the largest in Kurdistan. Its editorial board has gone to great lengths to maintain both editorial and financial autonomy. Hawlati recently became the first Kurdish paper to publish weekly several pages of news about developments in the rest of Iraq and in other countries, a move that has boosted its popularity.
The biggest challenge for independent media is financial stability. The notion that a newspaper, radio or TV station can turn a good profit is unheard of in Kurdistan. Moreover, to most Kurds, the purpose of media is to pursue political causes, rather than to inform the public. This mentality is a hangover from the past when all Kurdish media were in the service of "the revolution"—that is, resistance to successive oppressive central governments and overlords.
As a result, the Kurdish media have been slow to take advantage of the influx of new businesses and foreign investment. Billboards now crowd the roadsides of Kurdistan, but the concept of advertising in the media has not caught on, in part because local businesses and newspaper editors do not understand its benefit. In addition, for proud Kurds, soliciting advertising is considered tantamount to begging businessmen for money, and few media outlets are willing to subject their staff to such a humiliating endeavor. Instead of recruiting investors and building advertising and circulation departments, then, most small papers seek funding from international charities. They seem quite content to maintain a precarious financial status so long as they can struggle along on a shoestring budget.
Given the economic boom and relative political stability that Iraqi Kurdistan currently enjoys, independent media could free themselves completely from party support and catapult into a major news-providing role in Iraq. But first, they must make the difficult psychological shift from pursuing "the cause" above all else, to a broader conception of their potential role.
Maggy Zanger is a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. From August 2003 to December 2004, she served as the Baghdad-based director of the Iraq program of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a London-based nongovernmental organization.