Biased media in Kirkuk inflame tension

Rival sectarian groups in this northern Iraqi city are using their respective media as propaganda weapons.
By IWPR reporters in Kirkuk
Iraq, Kirkuk : Demonstration against the Turkish military threat. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM
Iraq, Kirkuk: demonstration against the Turkish military threat. © Marwan Ibrahim / AFP

KIRKUK, Oct. 2, 2007 (IWPR) - News organisations aligning themselves with ethnic-based and religious parties are inflaming tensions in Kirkuk by pushing the agendas of those they represent.

Kirkuk journalists and residents complain that the media often presents biased reports that create discord among the city’s diverse population.

Media critics maintain that rather than writing in the public’s interest, Arab, Turkoman and Kurdish media organisations in Kirkuk tend to represent the views of the groups they back - and, in doing so, are fuelling the conflicts that are fracturing city.

"There is no newspaper in Kirkuk that tells the truth, and the media is generally responsible for escalating feelings of malice and hatred,” said Nariman Sadiq, a teacher in a girls’ intermediate school.

Miqdad Mustafa, who has served as editor of several Kirkuk newspapers, agrees.

"The newspapers issued through political parties have narrow views and don’t address general Iraqi issues. They deal with ethnic or sectarian affairs.”

At the heart of the conflict lies a power struggle for control of the city.

In the 1980s, Kirkuk’s sizeable Kurdish and Turkoman populations shrank when former president Saddam Hussein began an “Arabisation” campaign to push thousands of Kurdish and Turkoman families out of the province.

They were replaced with Arabs who were also given the land and jobs of those Saddam expelled.

The government is now grappling with how to move the Arab settlers back to their places of origin, while bringing back the non-Arab families removed decades ago.

In the meantime, Kurdish parties in the city are using their media to call for the Arab settlers to leave Kirkuk and for a referendum to be held by the end of the year to decide whether the central or the Kurdish government should govern the province.

The Kurdish press regularly dedicates entire pages to calls for the referendum.

However, Many Arab parties and their news organisations want the referendum delayed, and some have encouraged Arab settlers to stay. Some of the leading Turkoman media, which are aligned with Turkoman parties supported by Turkey, also demand a postponement and are critical of the Kurdish authorities.

"There is an independent media, but it is weak due to the tense situation of Kirkuk. Therefore, the media coverage is shallow and inaccurate," said a journalist who asked not to be named.

In press conferences, for example, Arab newspapers quote only the Arab speakers and overlook the others. When the authorities say a suicide bomber was Arab, Arab newspapers often won’t include that part of the news. The same is true for other communities.

The media conflicts reflect and fuel the growing frictions in Kirkuk, where neighbourhoods are segregated “and are distinctly hostile to members of whatever community happens to be the minority”, according to an April 2007 report on Kirkuk by the International Crisis Group.

"Even if there are independent media, those who work in and run them are inclined to support their own ethnic group,” said Yousif Jaf, director of Islamic Union TV. “Arabs don't write against Arabs and Turkoman don't criticise Turkoman. The same thing goes for the Kurds.”

Many journalists and analysts do not dispute that the press enjoys more freedom than it did under Saddam, but they argue that news organisations are not acting responsibly.

One journalist expressed his frustration with working for party-dominated media group.

"I’m a follower of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and this party has its politics and policies. Therefore I'm shackled. I’m not a free journalist," said Jumaa Jabari, editor-in-chief of al-Shafaq publishing house that issues several Kurdish language publications.

In its April report, the International Crisis Group noted that political debates in Kirkuk “are fanned by overheated media campaigns by all concerned”.

It encouraged all parties to “reduce inflammatory rhetoric in public addresses and the media and agree to use dialogue and consensus as essential bases for resolving the Kirkuk dispute”.

But the political conflict has turned bloody, with al-Qaeda exploiting divisions by detonating massive car and truck bombs in Kirkuk.

Kocher Kirkuki, a journalist, says the media will not preach coexistence as long as ethnic tensions persist, "The more conflict there is over the city of Kirkuk, the more extreme the media will be."

This article is part of a special report about Iraqi media from the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (