No cash for bad news in Iraq

The Baghdad papers: some were paid by the former PM to just write good things about him

Media organisations that fostered close links Iraq’s former Prime Minister and, some say, published or broadcast propaganda for him, are finding that their funding has dried up. Analysts and other suitably qualified individuals who used to defend al-Maliki in the media are having the same problems.

By Ibrahim Saleh in Baghdad, via Niqash

While his bosses searched for a new investor, young Iraqi journalist Hussein Aslawi was forced to resign. As the search for extra funding went on, the satellite TV channel Aslawi worked for had decided to cut down on its number of staff.

And I tendered my resignation because things just are not the same anymore,” explains Aslawi, who worked as a news editor. “All of this is happening because the channel’s administrators have strong links to [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki. So this is the result of his election loss,” Aslawi notes.

The media organisation’s administrators had pinned all their hopes – and the future of their operating budget - on al-Maliki winning a third term. “And despite our warnings, they didn’t do anything to protect themselves in case al-Maliki lost,” Aslawi says. “That’s why things have gotten so bad.”

Shortly before the last general election in Iraq, held at the end of April this year, Aslawi says the satellite channel, whose name he did not want to reveal for fear of repercussions, received a lot of money from al-Maliki and his allies from out of a special campaign budget. “The money was paid on the condition that the channel changed its policies and supported al-Maliki,” says the young journalist, who adds that he and his colleagues were all shocked when they heard about the deal.  

“The channel became like al-Maliki’s spokesperson,” Aslawi says. “And it stayed that way up until Haider al-Abadi [the new Iraqi prime Minister] was assigned to form a government.”

At that stage, the channel was forced to stop broadcasting for almost two weeks. “And today its fate lies in finding somebody to finance it,” Aslawi notes. “But that seems very unlikely to happen.”

His experience is very similar to that of others in Iraq, where a media organisation has tied its fate to that of a certain politician or powerful individual. It applies not only to media organisations but also to individual journalists.

Over the past eight years that al-Maliki was in power, there’s been a lot of this kind of behaviour. Local journalists estimate that between 200 and 300 people – most of them journalists but also analysts, security experts, lawyers and others who had qualifications that allowed them to become commentators in the media – worked for al-Maliki’s press bureau.

The individuals doing these jobs would all receive what were known as “bonuses” ranging from US$100 per month to around US$2,000 a month, for those who were continuously being interviewed in the media or putting out stories. Some of these individuals were also thought to have been gifted new cars, property, houses, travel outside Iraq and even official approval of government contracts as rewards for spreading al-Maliki’s word.    

However what some describe as al-Maliki’s “propaganda machine” now seems to have stuttered to a standstill. Media organizations that were dependent on the government’s coffers for funding are no longer able to publish or broadcast and some of the individual journalists who were involved are unable to find work.

Local freelance journalist Mohammed Abdul-Karim is one of the latter group.

“I started working with what was known as al-Maliki’s Office for Information in 2007,” says Abdul-Karim. “One of the workers there told me I should publish news stories about al-Maliki and distribute them to the different media outlets I work for. I used to get money at the end of each month that they described as a “bonus”,” Abdul –Karim confirmed to NIQASH.

Things progressed from there and al-Maliki’s staff asked him to start writing for them and calling himself a “political analyst”. “I was publishing articles defending everything al-Maliki did,” Abdul-Karim admits.

But payment for that work ceased the day al-Abadi was nominated by new Iraqi President, Fouad Massoum, to form a government. And there hasn’t been any money since, says Abdul-Karim, who now describes his past work as “placing a losing bet”.  

Unfortunately for Abdul-Karim there was worse to come. Despite the fact that he’s applied to several different media organisations for jobs or for freelance work, absolutely nobody will accept him. He has been told it is because he has become well known for only offering one side of the story.

“Even if somebody like Abdul-Karim was working here and even if they were to abide by our standards of impartiality, just the fact that they were here would send the message that our agency is biased toward al-Maliki,” explains Haider al-Shammari, the editor-in-chief for Haqiqa (or Truth), an independent local news agency. “Those who did what he did must bear the consequences of their actions. Journalists, more than any other profession, should know that no single person can stay in a position of power forever.”

Local political analyst Khaled al-Bayati notes that some of the journalists and spokespersons who had been working for al-Maliki have returned to their jobs. “But this time they are in the service of parties rather than individual personalities,” he says. This just indicates their chameleon-like tendencies and their ability to justify whatever action they take, he suggests.  

Not everyone agrees about the duplicity of those who worked for al-Maliki’s “propaganda machine”.

“In the light of all of these political crises and the prevailing sectarian conflicts, neutrality is a kind of illusion,” argues Baghdad writer and journalist Mahmoud al-Mafraji, who has worked for, among others, the NINA news agency and the Afaq TV channel. “Journalists are people living in their societies too and they will naturally change under the influence of current events. Some start to defend certain things, sects or ethnicities – that’s all too evident during various crises Iraq has suffered.”

Al-Mafraji, who came out in defence of al-Maliki and his supporters several times, says he was perfectly prepared to defend his personal opinions, formed during the past few years in Iraq. “But that doesn’t affect my work as a journalist,” he insists. And he believes the same is true for many other colleagues. “The media institution, which links itself to a certain politician, will be affected by political changes. But there shouldn’t be any repercussions on the journalists.”

Meanwhile in Baghdad, things appear to be fairly different under the new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi.

“People working for al-Abadi have assignments and they are paid for them,” says Ali al-Araji, one of the journalists now working for the new government. “Usually they are either employees of the Cabinet ministers or they are people from al-Abadi’s party or his office. But they definitely don’t want to adopt his thoughts, in the same way they used to in the past. If we compare this with al-Maliki’s “propaganda machine”, it doesn’t even really exist the way it used to,” he concludes.
Posted on Monday, 13 October 2014