Iraq was set ablaze the night of December 24, 2019. Activists across the country gathered in the dark to blockade roadways with bonfires and torched tires. In Diwaniyah, a city south of Baghdad, demonstrators put flames to the headquarters of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, two political parties and paramilitary groups.

All this fire and curling smoke was in protest of an attack on the popular Iraqi satirist Aws Fadhil, whose political sketch comedy show, it seems, ran afoul of state interests. Fadhil, who had escaped unscathed the previous day, uploaded a video of the bullets lodged in his car to social media. Then, he turned the camera on himself. This was, he said, “a plan to attack and silence the revolution.”

Their movement calls for deeper, more systemic change; an end to Iraq’s pervasive political corruption, the dethroning of its class of oligarchic elites. 

Popular protests have been raging in Iraq for months. They unfurled out of Baghdad and across the central and southern regions of the country beginning October 1, 2019 and they have continued unabated since. On November 30, the unrest forced Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign from office, but the demonstrators were unappeased. Their movement calls for deeper, more systemic change; an end to Iraq’s pervasive political corruption, the dethroning of its class of oligarchic elites. 

In response, the Iraqi government has embarked on a violent crackdown against journalists and dissenters like Fadhil. Meanwhile, news outlets owned and operated by ruling political parties often have taken a hard line against the protests, clamoring instead to support Iraq’s ruling elite. 

This media landscape has been intensified by the country’s recent turmoil but is nothing new for Iraq. For years, the Iraqi press has seen corruption fester and independent speech smothered at the hands of the regime. This could be the moment where the old order is overturned. That is, at least, what protesters are demanding — in greater numbers and with greater urgency than ever before.

In October 2019, Iraq’s National Communications and Media Commission (CMC) shuttered eight television channels and several radio stations, including Dijlah TV and Al-Sharqiya. Others received warnings. The CMC gave media licensing violations as a pretext for the shutdowns, but all the outlets had been covering the protests, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported

“Efforts to suppress press freedoms have reached new heights,” Iraq’s National Union of Journalists wrote.

“Efforts to suppress press freedoms have reached new heights,” Iraq’s National Union of Journalists wrote in the following weeks.

Since then, orchestrated internet blackouts have periodically swept through the country. More journalists have vanished. Fadhil was only the latest in a seemingly endless line of activists, pundits, and reporters targeted — at times murdered — by state and paramilitary forces.

There was once, though, a vision for a flourishing, protected press in Iraq; a vision that, immediately after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, seemed like it might come to fruition. Pentagon officials preached this vision from Washington: “After the cessation of hostilities, having professional US-trained Iraqi media teams immediately in-place to portray a new Iraq (by Iraqis for Iraqis) with hopes for a prosperous, democratic future, will have a profound psychological and political impact on the Iraqi people,” one White Paper reads.

But the invasion and chaos that followed only set a lasting precedent for the suppression of speech and corruption in the media.

In March and April 2003, at the onset of the invasion, U.S. forces launched missile attacks against the Al Jazeera satellite office in Baghdad and the nearby premises of Iraqi TV.[1] 

The new transitional government — the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) — immediately dissolved Iraq’s Ministry of Information upon taking power and enlisted a major U.S. defense contracting firm (one with, notably, zero experience in media work) to rustle up a replacement.[2]

So was birthed the Iraqi Media Network (IMN). The IMN, the first body to fill Iraq’s new media vacuum, was intended to be a public media organization — à la BBC. It was quickly joined by hundreds of burgeoning media outlets, all vying for political relevance in a newly open media landscape.[3]

In public, the U.S. and the CPA advocated for media pluralism and sweeping press freedoms in Iraq. But Baghdad’s transitional government was facing mounting unrest and political polarization — and the U.S. had deteriorating public sentiment to contend with at home. Soon, the CPA was passing legislative orders to endow itself and the CMC with broad powers for media interference.[4]

Those powers — which still stand today — let the coalition government restrict and alter the IMN’s programming, which thereafter struck a strongly pro-Coalition line. They let the CPA shutter fledgling news outlets for vague charges like “inciting civil disorder.” The Pentagon paid Iraqi journalists and editors — clandestinely — to write and run pro-U.S. stories in Iraqi outlets, concealing the true authorship. Iran, too, funneled money to private media groups. 

Iraq’s media had become a feverish battleground for the competing interests, foreign and domestic, clawing for power and influence post-invasion.

Iraq’s media had become a feverish battleground for the competing interests, foreign and domestic, clawing for power and influence post-invasion. That legacy remains.

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A new newspaper is being published in Iraq called TukTuk, and it is the paper of the protesters, who created it to spread their narrative amid censorship and internet blackouts.

There was little room for independent media in the post-2003 order. As a result of the post-invasion Muhasasa (Quota) governing system — which portions out political representation along religious and ethnic lines — political parties became increasingly sectarian. And Iraq’s new political elites, claiming to represent various identity groups, quickly dominated the press, amassing media empires to advance their own interests. 

“The media is an extension of this sectarian violence we are witnessing today,” journalist Ahmed Rikabi told CNN in 2006.

These are the parallel legacies of Iraq’s post-2003 politics and its fourth estate — both deeply afflicted by Coalition-imposed systems, both antagonistic to the interests of ordinary Iraqis. Thus it is unsurprising that, today, some significant Iraqi outlets have positioned themselves against Iraq’s popular protests, describing demonstrators, for example, as violent outlaws

Yet dissident voices — buoyed by social media and independent platforms — are the bedrock of Iraq’s protest movement. Some say they are making room for new forms of political expression in Iraq, for, perhaps, media and voices not beholden to any predatory interests.

For this reason, writer and scholar Fanar Haddad calls the protests a cultural revolution. “Not only in the sense of the art and creativity that have accompanied the protests but also in terms of political thinking and political expression,” he wrote to Inside Arabia, noting a focus among protesters on civic participation.

“The protests of this year are anti-systemic and impervious to the power of traditional authorities – political, tribal, patriarchal and to a lesser extent even towards religious authorities.”

“The protests of this year are anti-systemic and impervious to the power of traditional authorities – political, tribal, patriarchal and to a lesser extent even towards religious authorities,” he continued.

Indeed, in Tahrir Square — the focal point of the protests in Baghdad, where hundreds of demonstrators camp out day and night — there is a new newspaper being published. It is called Tuktuk, and it is the paper of the protestors, who created it to spread their narrative amid censorship and internet blackouts. They write it, print it, and distribute thousands of copies in Baghdad. 

“If you kill us all, who will you rule over?” asks the sixth issue of the publication. For Iraq, these questions might be the new normal.

That question now seems to be irrelevant.

——-

[1] “Iraq: the Media War Plan,” The National Security Archive, May 8, 2007, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB219/index.htm, accessed December 2019

[2] Ahmed Al-Rawi, “The US influence in shaping Iraq’s sectarian media,” International Communication Gazette 75 (2013): 374-391

[3] Aida Al-Kaisy, “A fragmented landscape: barriers to independent media in Iraq.” LSE Middle East Centre Report, (2019): 13

[4] Al-Rawi, “The US influence in shaping Iraq’s sectarian media”

[5] Ibrahim Al-Marashi, “Dynamics of Iraq’s Media: Ethno-Sectarian Violence, Political Islam, Public Advocacy, and Globalization,” Cardozo Arts & Ent. LJ 25 (2007)

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