Cablegate: Basrah's Press: A Work in Progress

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1. (SBU) A recent joint press conference held by Basrah PRT
Leader and Basrah Governor Shiltagh Aboud to highlight USG
reconstruction efforts generated revealing insights into the
current state of Basrah's local media. The coverage -- which
ranged from exaggeratedly positive ("PRT to rebuild city of
Basrah") to largely negative ("Some PRT projects a failure")--
pointed or demonstrated the underdeveloped nature of Basrah's
press corps, including an unhealthy dependence on patronage and
government pay-for-play financing to stay in business. Local
independent journalists have less bias, but still see negative
stories as a way to gain credibility and build a reputation.
Nevertheless, despite its deficiencies, the local media serves
an important role in Basrah, and will hopefully mature and
improve over time. End Summary.

Good Stories Are Bad News

2. (U) The January 14 joint press conference -- a PRT Public
Diplomacy section initiative -- sought to emphasize the positive
working relationship between the PRT and local government, and
to highlight the significant reconstruction work being supported
by the USG. In his opening remarks, the Team Leader reviewed
several dozen PRT infrastructure projects worth more than $120
million, including numerous bricks-and-mortar projects to
improve the delivery of essential services. A six-page listing
in Arabic of ongoing PRT projects was distributed. The PRT also
displayed a large map depicting in Arabic several hundred past,
current, and planned USG projects in Basrah Province. In
highlighting the partnership between the PRT and local
government, the Team Leader explained that, with the completion
of these infrastructure projects over the next 12 months, the
USG role would shift from infrastructure development (which he
noted that the Iraqi government would need to assume and fund)
to capacity building within the local government.

3. (U) Reports published following the press conference ranged
from purely positive to largely negative. The positive stories
focused on the importance of the projects and the significant
investment the USG has made in Basrah province. Most stories
(both positive and negative) credited the significant USG
investment in specific projects, but also noted Basrawi
discontent with the lack of dramatic progress in solving the
province's massive infrastructure problems. The largely
negative stories twisted comments made by the Governor Shiltagh
into criticisms, or complained that the projects had failed to
completely rebuild Basrah's infrastructure. A number of stories
reported the PRT's transition from a focus on bricks-and-mortar
projects to capacity building assistance without characterizing
it as good or bad.

4. (U) The most negative article, distributed by
Gulf-Arab-owned, pro-Sunni Al-Somariya, led with a paragraph
citing Governor Shiltagh as criticizing some PRT-supported
projects for not having been implemented satisfactorily and
stating that they were "doomed to failure." Though the next few
paragraphs of the story reported the Team Leader's review of
specific projects, the final half of the story expanded on the
comments by the governor who had expressed concern about a few
projects (garbage trucks that remained inoperable for want of
spare parts and a canal cleanup project that he saw as failing
because of shortcomings of the Iraqi companies implementing the
project). The journalist concluded with a paragraph claiming
that dozens of reconstruction projects carried out over the past
years have not improved the quality of life for Basrawis.

============================================= =======
Underdeveloped Media Lacks Experience, Creates Fears
============================================= =======

5. (SBU) PRT experience and conversations with journalists,
scholars, Basrah government press officers, and politicians
reveal several factors that explain the diverse coverage of the
press conference. An underlying problem is that the local Iraqi
media is underdeveloped. An unfettered press is a recent
development in Iraq, and journalists and editors here are still
climbing the learning curve, as are government information
officers. A key reason the PRT organized the joint press
conference was because the government's information officers are
reluctant to engage the media. They harbor fears that the media
will misreport something, politically endangering their bosses
as a result. Their lack of faith in the media is to some degree
warranted because few reporters are trained or experienced
journalists. Mahmoud Bachari (protect), an independent
journalist the PRT is using to conduct transparency training for
Basrawi journalists, told us that many journalists in Basrah got

BASRAH 00000003 002.2 OF 002

their jobs through connections or as favors. Most had little or
no experience in the field before being hired.

============================================= ===
Southern Iraq's Journalists: Beholden and Bought
============================================= ===

6. (SBU) Apart from lacking experience, these journalists are
often beholden to benefactors, and report their stories to
satisfy their biases. News bias is not just circumstantial; it
is part and parcel of the economics of journalism southern Iraq.
Bachari recounted how journalists are paid by political
parties, businesses or wealthy people to run specific stories or
cover certain events. He added that the government is a big
source of revenue for media outlets because it pays journalists
to cover specific stories. PRT staff witnessed this
pay-for-play practice several months ago, watching as the media
advisor to the governor openly passed out envelopes of money to
journalists at the end of a joint Governor/Prime Minister press
conference. Positive coverage by a journalist generates more
coverage requests and thus more revenue from the government. As
a result, many journalists, editors, and media outlets are
reluctant to criticize the government in their stories.

7. (SBU) In addition to payment for placement, another key
factor in biased coverage is politicization of the media.
According to Bachari, certain media outlets are effectively
extensions of specific political parties or foreign interests,
and they follow the party line in reporting on any issue.
Commenting on the coverage of the joint press conference,
Bachari said that the outlets that had run positive stories were
Al-Forat, Al-Nakhile, Al-Fayyhaa, Al-Massar, Al-Ateja,
Al-Babilya, Al-Iraqiya. He added that Al-Massar was backed by
the Da'wa party, and that the founders of Al-Forat and
Al-Nakhile were Da'wa supporters, thus generating sympathetic
coverage. Largely negative coverage had come from Al-Sharkia,
Al-Baghdadya, and Al-Somariya. These outlets, said Bachari,
were all owned by Sunni foreigners, and typically criticized
Maliki and the Da'wa party in their reporting. The stories that
had fallen in the middle, but which were more positive than
negative, were generally reported by independent or
international journalists, such as Reuters, Radio Sawa, IHA, and
al-Hura. Saudi-backed al-Arabiya attended the conference, but
chose not to report the story.

Independent Does Not Mean Fair

8. (SBU) Bachari also remarked that sometimes even independent
journalists emphasize negative aspects of a story to gain
credibility and exposure. He added that any attempt to seek
redress from a reporter or media outlet, even for a factual
misrepresentation, would likely lead to even more negative
coverage. The reporter would probably run a second story
playing up the role of the original coverage in angering
powerful interests, such as Basrah's governor or the USG.
Overall, he said that Basrah's press has not developed the
traditions or role of most western press -- to be an unbiased
reporter of information that checks abuse of government power.


9. (SBU) The reporting media in southern Iraq, like so much else
in Basrah and the rest of Iraq, is a work in progress. While it
may not have yet developed the objectivity and professional
independence that would best serve a budding democracy, it does
serve a useful role despite its many deficiencies. The press
gets information to the public, has politicians vying (albeit
paying) for coverage, and every story critical of the government
reminds Basrawis that they no longer live in a society where the
government is above reproach. Training through projects like
the PRT's transparency project and the existence of independent
journalists are two positive influences that will help build a
more professional cadre of reporters over time. Until then, the
Basrah government (and the PRT) can occasionally expect good
stories to be bad news. End Comment.

© Scoop Media

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