Iraqi Media: A thing of the past or of the future?

April 11, 2011

A heated debate is underway in Baghdad. This time, it is not between Shias and Sunnis or Kurds and Arabs. It is not over past territorial disputes or revenue sharing. Rather, it is between two generations and their conflict over the future and shape of Iraq’s media.
The dispute is creating two fronts: One that is looking to the past and one that is looking to the future.
This became clear when the controversial “Journalists’ Protection Law” was discussed at Iraqi MP’s Safia Souhail’s cultural council last weekend in Baghdad. The talk brought together almost everyone who is connected to the law, and the debate reflected the real challenges that face the new Iraq.
Without getting into the legal and constitutional flaws of the proposed legislation to protect journalists, the key issue regarding the draft comes down to the philosophy behind it.
The law defines a journalist as a member of the Journalists’ Syndicate, which raises crucial questions about who is a journalist. What is the role of the journalist? Who should be protected? And ultimately, why should Iraq have special legislation for the most fluid category of professionals and commit the state to providing them with privileges?
One of the most difficult challenges in this digital age is defining a journalist. The traditional role of a journalist is morphing, and a new category of journalists is emerging.
This new breed of journalists cannot be boxed into a traditional definition. They might not know how to write a news story or to operate a radio mic or TV camera. They are not members of any syndicate. In fact they do not want to be called journalists. But they have a very large audience including everyone in Facebookstan and Twitterstan, who are also providing pictures, sound, footage and information from their areas.
The majority of the ground-breaking footage and stories over the past few years were taken by mobile phones and personal camcorders on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Think of the powerful footage of gunfire on Sulaimaniyah protesters this year; the tragic stoning death of a Yezidi girl in northern Iraq in 2007; and Saddam Hussein’s controversial hanging in 2006. All were shared through social media.
This community is increasing and shifting by the day. Their tools are changing just as quickly.
In Iraq, the number of Facebook users is over 600,000. No other media outlet has this community.
As a result, the debate about the future of media in many developed countries is about life after newspapers and traditional radio and television outlets.
They are not debating the definition of a journalist, because the sad truth is that it no longer matters who a journalist is. What really matters is the information that is being disseminated. There are instead larger questions, such as: How is the information being presented? Is it credible or not? The question of who is producing the information is the least important concern today.
In light of this new landscape, there is a better way to strategically create an environment that gears Iraq and its political system toward the future, making it resistant to the earthquakes that are shaking the region.
Iraq needs to work on passing legislation that ensures citizens the right to information first, and then determine if there are any groups who need protection once the right to information becomes enshrined in law.
If the current Journalists’ Protection Law is passed, it would divide the media scene into two categories like Egypt.
Egypt’s traditional media was paid by the government, making ludicrous decisions such as manipulating a photo of Mubarak and Obama to ensure that the Egyptian leader was at the front of a shot taken at the White House. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter were sweeping Egypt, empowering a new category of citizen journalists who would later change the regime.
The debate today is between those who are looking toward the future and those who are looking at the past. If we do not accept that the only benefit of looking to the past is to build for the future, the same turmoil could occur in Iraq.
In Iraq, today is not the continuation of the past, but is the beginning of the future. The Iraqi parliament will prove when they discuss and decide on the JPL if this maxim is right or wrong!

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