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Partisan press: The dominance of party-backed media in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region

2024-02-11 09:31:51

Draw Media

Middle East Institute (MEI) - Winthrop Rodgers

Attend any press conference in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region and the microphone bank on the podium is a swirl of reds, blues, yellows, blacks, and oranges representing different outlets. At first glance, this suggests a healthy press environment with a high degree of opportunity and competition, but in reality the media landscape is dominated by outlets affiliated with political parties.

A kind of Kremlinology is necessary to parse the partisan affiliations represented. The ruling duopoly of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) oversees a galaxy of loyal platforms. Islamist and opposition parties are represented too. Party factions and individual politicians also fund specific outlets to boost their profiles, adding a further level of complexity.

As a result, media coverage in the Kurdistan Region largely promotes the interests of politically motivated patrons, rather than performing a public service mission of providing impartial and high-quality information to all audiences.

There are some independent outlets, but they have limited reach due to lack of funding and harassment by the authorities. Their work ends up drowned out by the party-funded enterprises. For both the Kurdish public and foreign observers, this skews the playing field and creates a biased perception of events and what issues are important.

Moreover, the resulting system produces reporting that is centered on the daily activities of the political elite, rather than stories that tackle systemic problems like corruption, the economy, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses. When these issues are covered by partisan outlets, they are framed to highlight the most positive possible interpretation or used to score points against political opponents.

This analysis is an attempt to explain how party-affiliated outlets came to dominate the media landscape in the Kurdistan Region and the impact that has on Kurdish citizens and foreign stakeholders. It is not a comprehensive guide to Kurdish media, but it will provide insight into the positioning of some major outlets.

The development of party media

The dominance of party-affiliated media is partially a legacy of the Kurdistan Region’s political development. Until 1991, Kurdish areas of Iraq were administrated by the central government in Baghdad, including during the Ba’athist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Media in this environment was highly restricted and largely came from official state organs. Non-state media existed as well in the form of newspapers and radio stations run by the KDP and the PUK as part of their organized resistance to the Iraqi government. Therefore, connections between media, government, and political parties are hardly unusual. In fact, they are the norm historically.

For a period in the 2000s, however, independent media flourished in the Kurdistan Region. Newspapers like Hawlati and Awene and Livin magazine published news and commentary that challenged the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the ruling parties. Editors and reporters took on big stories, including investigations into corruption. “People were eager to read them and waited for the new editions. They had a real impact,” Surkew Mohammed, editor-in-chief of web-based independent news outlet Peregraf, said in an interview.

Independent media is different from party-affiliated outlets both in how they are funded and how they cover the news. The first aspect is obvious, though a lack of financial transparency in the Kurdistan Region means that there are few clear lines between outlets and their patrons. Shell companies and trusted associates stand in for politicians on official documentation, but the connections are evident. The second aspect is tested by whether an outlet is able to report news or opinion pieces that are critical of its patron. For an authentically independent outlet, all public figures and newsworthy events are fair game for both positive and negative stories. In the Kurdistan Region, this editorial approach is rarely seen in practice. Instead, party-affiliated outlets decide what and how to cover developments based on the political calculations of their benefactors.

Of course, all of the outlets mentioned in this piece vocally proclaim their independence and many use it heavily in their marketing. “It’s just using the term, like ‘democracy.’ It is seen as a good thing. … They use the term to justify themselves and their activities,” Mohammed explained. In most cases, it is simply a parlor trick that frequently succeeds in duping outsiders who are unfamiliar with the context; in others, those who know better deliberately ignore outlets’ partisan characters.

The relatively open period for independent media in the mid-2000s was overtaken by the end of the decade by technological changes and the emergence of satellite television stations as the primary medium of news dissemination. Far more expensive to produce than a newspaper, Kurdish-language television is dominated by the political parties and wealthy businesspeople. Kurdistan TV, Zagros TV, and Kurdsat were early efforts, but today channels like Rudaw, Nalia Radio and Television (NRT), and Kurdistan24 run constantly in offices and shops, during dinner, and throughout the evening as the background of everyday life in the Kurdistan Region.

Television is a one-directional way of communicating. This fact serves the parties’ interests and allows them great latitude to shape the news. For the most part, they choose exactly what goes out over their airwaves. The political affiliation and editorial lines of each channel are well-known and many viewers will flip around the channels to see what each is saying about a given news item and correlate that with the views of specific parties or politicians.

This shift away from independent newspapers towards party-affiliated outlets was closely followed by the exploding popularity of social media, particularly Facebook. Mobile devices enabled greater access to the internet and the parties rushed to exploit it. The old guard of newspapers were not agile enough and did not have the resources to adapt, but the TV stations established robust web-based news operations. As a result, they fully displaced most independent outlets as the primary source of news in the Kurdistan Region by the middle of the 2010s, co-opting journalists from the old newspapers along the way.

This tracks with the political culture of the Kurdistan Region, where civil society and the state are relatively weak compared with the political parties. The KDP and the PUK in particular exert a high degree of influence over the institutions that make up civic life, including labor unions, universities, courts, and businesses. Media is no different in this regard, but plays a unique role as a purveyor and shaper of information.

Before going further, it is important to note that the partisan affiliation of an outlet does not mean that individual journalists share that political commitment. Sometimes they do but, like viewers, they are largely subject to a system beyond their control. Working in Kurdish media is a politically fraught adventure. Reporters in the field are regularly targeted and attacked by members of the security forces based on their perceived political affiliation. Job security is tenuous, pay is low, and disloyalty is punished. Journalists respond to these dynamics in a variety of ways, but the focus in this analysis is the overall system rather than their individual actions.

KRG Coordinator for International Advocacy Dindar Zebari stands behind microphones of Kurdish media outlets at a press conference in Sulaymaniyah on May 6, 2021. (Photo: Winthrop Rodgers)

KRG Coordinator for International Advocacy Dindar Zebari stands behind microphones of Kurdish media outlets at a press conference in Sulaymaniyah on May 6, 2021. Photo: Winthrop Rodgers.


Parsing the media landscape

It takes a bit of time and experience to read a microphone bank in the Kurdistan Region and see what outlets and political interests are present to cover a given news event. Some analysts, including Hakeem Dawd Qaradaghi, have written helpful guides. However, they are quickly out of date amid the churn of new platforms starting up and old ones closing down, which includes the websites where these guides are published. Link death and deleted stories are a major problem for Kurdish media. A rundown of some of the major outlets may be helpful here.

Of the two ruling parties, the KDP’s media operation is by far the most sophisticated. The party and its leaders fund a wide array of media outlets. The most prominent of these is Rudaw, which was established in 2013 and is backed by Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, it is likely the most-watched channel in the Kurdistan Region.

Like many other outlets, Rudaw runs its television programming mainly in Sorani Kurdish. It also publishes news in other Kurdish dialects, Arabic, Turkish, and English on its website and social media platforms. This allows them to cater to different audiences and news coverage is tailored to appeal to each. The tone and content of the English services, for example, are often quite different from what is published or broadcast in Kurdish. For example, issues like human rights and press freedom receive sympathetic coverage from the English desk, while the segments in Kurdish will more closely follow the party line. Rudaw’s coverage is relatively comprehensive, which sets it apart from other partisan channels, but its reliance on party funding and reluctance to directly criticize Nechirvan Barzani’s leadership make its character clear.

In recent years, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has risen to power within the KDP and challenged his cousin Nechirvan politically. Concurrently, he has also sought to displace Rudaw as the top Kurdish outlet and replace it with outlets he controls. The most significant effort in this regard is Kurdistan24, which launched in 2015. Despite enviable levels of funding, it lags behind its older rival and its coverage in Kurdish, English, and other languages is little more than a regurgitation of KRG press releases. Masrour Barzani’s faction has a number of other outlets, including BasNews, that reinforce its message.

The PUK’s media operations are far less sophisticated and reflect the party’s complex factionalism. Well-established satellite TV stations Kurdsat and Gali Kurdistan are associated with the party’s leadership, with Iraq’s First Lady Shanaz Ibrahim wielding influence over the former. PUK leader Bafel Talabani established Esta News in 2019 as he geared up to take power. Other party leaders like Qubad Talabani, Barham Salih, and Mala Bakhtiyar are believed to back smaller outlets to varying degrees. Both before and after he was ousted from the PUK, Lahur Sheikh Jangi sought influence through the media. His outlet, known as iPlus, was seized by the Talabanis as one of their first steps towards removing their rival cousin as party co-leader.

“Both ruling parties established media organizations to tell the public the news in the way they want, not in the way the news happens,” Qaradaghi said in an interview. “The KDP is more successful mostly because it is a centralized and tribal party where only the Barzanis make decisions. This makes the job of the media crystal clear and [outlets] get direction from one source. On the PUK’s part, it is different … it is not a strong and centralized party.”

The main opposition television channel is NRT, which launched just days before massive anti-corruption protests swept Sulaymaniyah Governorate in February 2011. Within a week, armed men stormed the channel’s office and set it on fire. This knocked NRT’s coverage of the protests off the air, but gave it a compelling origin story. Over the years, the authorities have continued to target its reporters and close down its offices to restrict coverage of protests.

After its owner Shaswar Abdulwahid went into politics and founded the New Generation Movement in 2018, viewers increasingly see it as merely another party-funded operation. Nevertheless, NRT’s coverage remains highly critical of the Kurdistan Region’s ruling parties and it airs viewpoints that are passed over by KDP and PUK channels, which make it a widely viewed alternative.

Other parties have their own outlets. The Change Movement (Gorran) runs Kurdish News Network (KNN), but the channel has never been as prominent as NRT or those backed by the KDP and the PUK. The Kurdistan Region’s two Islamist parties also have extensive media operations, which include both news and religious programming. The Kurdistan Islamist Union’s (KIU) main channel is Speda TV, while the Kurdistan Justice Group (KJG) runs Payam TV.

While newspapers Hawlati and Awene have lost their influence, several web-based outlets have stepped in to take up the mantel of independent news coverage, including Peregraf, KirkukNow, and Draw Media. Some independent outlets are actively harassed by the authorities, but for the most part their main challenge is securing funding. Unlike their party-affiliated counterparts, they do not have access to deep-pocketed patrons.

“At the beginning of Peregraf, I sold my own car to fund its start up. Following that, I received funding from the international community,” Mohammed said. Both Peregraf and Draw receive support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and KirkukNow is supported in part by the European Endowment for Democracy and Free Press Unlimited.

Among some observers, this foreign funding is controversial because the funders are located in the US or Europe, but for its recipients it is key to their independence. There is some advertising revenue available, but businesses are subject to political influence, so it is not a reliable option. “[We] have only one way to work and this is through international funding and grants. Otherwise, we cannot survive,” Mohammed said.

New ventures

The KDP and the PUK are doubling down on their strategy and several new party-affiliated outlets have launched over the past several months. The bulk of these new ventures are associated with Masrour Barzani and his advisors, reflecting the prime minister’s growing power within the KDP.

Established in February 2023, the Kurdistan Chronicle is a slickly produced, English-language magazine aimed at the international community with content that reads like an investment brochure for Barzani’s premiership. The prime minister’s signature initiatives like the export of produce to the Gulf dominate its coverage. Similarly, The New Region is oriented towards a global audience, but is newsier. Yet, the intent embodied in its name is unmistakable. Finally, Barzani’s operation has re-oriented Ava Media from entertainment broadcasting to a news platform that caters to Kurdish speakers. Barzani’s son and presumed heir, Areen Barzani, is regularly featured in its coverage.

A screenshot of Kurdistan 24’s January 12, 2024 coverage of KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s trip to Davos (Photo: Screenshot/Kurdistan24)

A screenshot of Kurdistan 24’s January 12, 2024 coverage of KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s trip to Davos. Photo: Screenshot/Kurdistan24.


“The aim is to compete with Rudaw and mostly target the Kurdistan Region and other Kurdish areas,” said Qaradaghi, adding that Ava Media is allegedly “hiring Rudaw employees on massive wages.” They are also an attempt to blunt criticism of Barzani’s term as prime minister, which has seen significant political and economic upheaval, and improve the souring perception of his government in foreign capitals. However, Qaradaghi sees this as “conflating government, personal, and partisan roles.”

Not to be outdone, PUK leader Bafel Talabani is also seeking to boost his profile. A political newcomer who has only held an official position within the PUK since December 2019, Talabani lacks the kind of connection that other Kurdish leaders, including his father Jalal Talabani, developed with the broader public beyond their core supporters. Therefore, his profile and apparent accomplishments must be constructed by friendly media.

In January 2024, Channel 8 began airing after a long period of development. In addition to Talabani’s own political fortunes, the new outlet will likely seek to boost the PUK’s brand ahead of expected regional elections later this year.

Who it harms

The Kurdistan Region’s system of party-affiliated media skews coverage of news events and issues. This harms two distinct groups: Kurdish citizens, who are unable to access impartial information in their own language about their government and politics, and foreign observers, for whom information about the Kurdistan Region is largely viewed through partisan filters.

While citizens have the option of choosing from a variety of party-supported outlets, which does mean some diversity of perspectives, there are many issues and viewpoints that the ruling parties are united in keeping off the airwaves. A good example of this is corruption, which is pervasive in the Kurdistan Region. Nevertheless, in-depth investigations into specific cases are rare. When it is mentioned, it mostly takes the form of hints and allegations rather than the kind of exploratory investigative journalism that occurs elsewhere. Lamentably, some of the most detailed stories about corruption have been published abroad by foreign journalists. That is not because of a lack of bravery, talent, or ambition on the part of Kurdish journalists — far from it — but rather because the system protects vested interests and punishes those who challenge it with unemployment or worse. Citizens are the biggest loser: They are denied the vital information that enables authentic democracy to function.

Foreign observers are similarly offered a distorted view of economic and political dynamics in the Kurdistan Region focusing almost entirely on the activities and concerns of the elite, rather than the everyday experience of ordinary residents. Outlets like Rudaw, Kurdistan24, and the Kurdistan Chronicle publish accessibly in English and their platforms are optimized to appear in web searches. This is not trickery, but smart business practice that above all takes money to do well and consistently.

The effect is that outside observers most frequently encounter the information these partisan outlets publish, while information that disrupts party-constructed narratives is not as easily available. It takes time, experience, and language skills to dig deeper. That is hard to do from behind a desk in Washington, Dubai, or Berlin.

The Kurdistan Region would be much better served by independent, non-partisan media. However, such a shift would require major systemic changes that run counter to the region’s political development. A completely different funding model would also need to be put in place to support truly independent journalism. These are unlikely to happen in the near term, but recognizing this dual challenge is the first step to making sure that Kurdish citizens and foreign observers get the information they deserve.


Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and researcher who focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy. His past work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Index on Censorship, Al-Monitor, and Rest of World. Full disclosure: Rodgers was NRT’s English Editor from 2018-2021 and contributes to Peregraf’s English coverage.

Main photo by Winthrop Rodgers

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.

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