The relationship between politics and media in Iraqi Kurdistan has oscillated between bad and unhealthy. Neither political interests nor the media have managed to overcome their disabilities, failing to create a healthy relationship that would shape citizens who are educated, informed and aware of the place and region where they live.
By political interests, we mean the bodies that run the Kurdistan Region, like the regional presidency, government or parliament, as well as the political parties that are on both sides of the political divide. Each one has a different story to tell about “how bad the media are.”
The media on the other hand are split into a few categories: Party political, private and those in between. Each news outlet has its own stories about the difficulties of dealing with authorities, trying to cover sensitive stories, getting exclusive interviews or even basic information.
The political parties of the Kurdistan Region have always treated media as part of their machinery of struggle. Hence, the media outlets that belonged to these parties have always toed the party line and were seen by the public as a party propaganda tool.
As a result, a journalist working in these outlets did not have to heed the journalistic values of fairness, balance impartiality or other concerns. Their duty was first to the party and then to the public.
Some in the parties realized that this model of media is outdated and needs to be revamped, so they helped set up other outlets that are still party funded, but not officially. This has placed the outlets one step removed from the party. But it was very difficult for such outlets to convince the public of their true independence, and allay public suspicions that their allegiance was first to the funding party.
Another category of media is the private one that started off playing an opposition role to the ruling parties but now is trying to find a new role for itself after the emergence of the opposition and its strong media.
This complex media map of Kurdistan is not helping to create informed and educated citizens. In the Kurdistan Region, media outlets do not generally operate on a healthy business model. They end up either overfunded and their staff operates like civil servants, or they are underfunded and workers act like activists.
Usually, a media outlet produces good results when it is either funded by public funds and operates like a service provider, or when it is a real business investment that pursues audience interests and tries to attract as many fans as possible by maintaining high standards of credibility.
As for the government and parties, they do not seem to be under any real pressure to handle the media the way they should be handled. Legally, there is no obligation on anyone to give out information. Politically, each party has its own media – or a one-step-removed media — and does not feel any obligation to talk to “the others”.
The current relationship is clearly taking the two sides nowhere, and it could continue forever at the expense of the citizens of Kurdistan.
The political parties should work on a good and modern right-to-information legislation that obliges government officials to give out information to the public and change their attitude to the media. They should also work on reforming their media by creating a clear distinction and separation between news and opinion.
The opinion sections of the media outlets can be kept by the party and the news and facts should be outsourced to independent and professional journalists. Once this happens, the other media will be under a natural obligation to also reform, and only then will a real partnership between the media and politics develop.
Today in Kurdistan there is not a single source trusted by the public that provides all the news. With a true healing and a new partnership between the politics and media, this sad and unacceptable reality could change.