The new battlefront in Iraq these days is the increasingly crowded field of state and privately-financed satellite television channels. They are the most efficient media that can reach millions of Iraqis who rely largely for their news and entertainment on foreign outlets.
The problem is that a satellite propaganda war is being fought out over the skies of Iraq that could also extend to shaping the mindsets of Iraqi viewers who face an uncertain future.
The latest media outlet that joined the race to transmit directly to Iraq is a Saudi television channel launched on 17 February. A battle is already underway between the newcomer and Iranian and Iran-funded media in Iraq.
The launch of the Saudi channel MBC-Iraq caught many off-guard, but it could not have come as a complete surprise. Saudi Arabia has long been trying to woo Iraqis away from its main rival Iran, which has been seeking to extend its influence further in Iraq.
Iran also operates several television organisations targeting the Iraqi audience with Iranian political and religious propaganda. Iran’s Arabic-language news channels have also exacerbated the “TV wars” between Iran and many of its Arab neighbours.
Amr Adib, an anchor at MB-Egypt, also owned by the Middle East Broadcasting Centre MBC, a television entertainment and news outlet owned by the Saudi Royal Family, told viewers that the sister channel MBC-Iraq would have a political agenda.
“The channel is not only a media outlet. It is a social and political one that will allow Iraqis to appreciate their Arab identity,” Adib said on his programme the “Tale” on 26 January.
“There is an Iranian-Turkish struggle over Iraq, and its brothers must support it [Iraq],” he said, referring to the widely perceived growing influence of both Ankara and Tehran in Iraq.
The MBC group, meanwhile, said that MBC-Iraq was “a premium entertainment television channel, broadcasting a diverse selection of content suitable for the entire Iraqi family, consisting of Iraqi and regional productions.”
MBC describes itself on its Website as the “largest and leading private media company in the Middle East & North Africa.” MBC outlets which operate from Dubai include 18 TV channels that broadcast in several languages.
At the time of its launch, the new channel seemed like a bold move for the media company, but Saudi-owned MBC-Iraq also seems doomed because of the war for the airwaves with Iran.
Soon after it was launched, the station came under fire from pro-Iran Shia groups in Iraq that accused it of being an instrument for the “cultural invasion” of the country by Saudi Arabia.
“We are afraid of the poison that could be spread by these channels,” said Laith Al-Ithari, a senior official of the Iran-backed militia Assab Ahlul Haq in Iraq.
More seriously, MBC-Iraq’s operators in Baghdad have started receiving death threats, forcing them to close offices and studios in the upscale Zaiyyona neighbourhood of the Iraqi capital that cost the Saudi company millions of dollars to refurbish.
Consequently, the channel has had to move most of its operations to Irbil in the Kurdish-controlled Region of Iraq, Beirut and Dubai, a clear limitation on broadcasting from Baghdad.
MBC-Iraq’s broadcasts include serials, social comedies, music, cultural and lifestyle programmes, and talk shows meant for a domestic audience. They are produced and screened by Iraqi teams that focus on Iraqi issues.
Nowhere is the struggle over the airwaves more intense than in the Middle East. Currently, there are more than 500 satellite and terrestrial TV channels beaming into households across the region.
In addition to the homegrown channels, almost every major network in the world is also now running an Arab broadcaster. Apart from BBC Arabic, the region has Russian RT Arabic, France 24 Arabic, CNN Arabic, CCTV Arabic and TRT (Turkey) Arabic.
After its invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States launched the Al-Hurra channel in a bid to keep pace with regional competitors.
Al-Hurra, or the Free Channel, also started broadcasting Al-Hurra-Iraq which was meant to be the voice of the US for Iraqis. Both channels drew fire in the Middle East and were accused of being an American attempt to influence public opinion.
In 2017, the channels saw a new administration headed by former American diplomat Alberto Fernandez who later announced a complete overhaul of them.
This “revitalisation” was aimed at challenging anti-American media and political groups critical to US policy in the Middle East, while Al-Hurra-Iraq was redesigned to confront Iran and its supporters in Iraq.
Among several steps Fernandez took to reorganise Al-Hurra-Iraq were his firing of dozens of its Baghdad staff, the recruitment of new personnel, and the redesign of the channel in line with its newly robust anti-Iran agenda.
As expected, the new version of Al-Hurra-Iraq was met with harsh criticism by Iran’s proxies in Iraq, who accused it of bias, spreading American ways of thinking and anti-Shia propaganda.
Following the controversy, the Baghdad-based Journalism Freedom Observatory reported that several remaining Al-Hurra-Iraq staff had received threats for continuing to work for the station.
In January, an Iraqi journalist working for Al-Hurra was found dead in a Baghdad suburb. The authorities said they had launched a probe into the death of Samer Ali Shakara, who was shot in the head, but since then there has been no word on who was behind the incident.
For years, the all-news Qatari Aljazeera satellite TV network has been having trouble in Iraq, including the closure of its offices in Baghdad for allegedly fanning anti-Shia sentiments and supporting Sunni insurgents.
Nevertheless, the coverage of Iraq by Aljazeera, which was established to reflect Qatar’s political vision, has been “positive” since Doha fell out with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates more than two years ago.
Airwave competition in conflicts is not new. Radio broadcasts to spread or counter propaganda by stations that operate across borders are as old as the technology itself.
Upon their launch in the 1990s, the satellite TV channels in the Middle East performed an immensely significant role in addressing core issues concerning the welfare and national security of their respective nations and catering to their preferences.
The airwave war over Iraq comes at a difficult time in the region, particularly as attention turns to the influence of Iran over local proxy groups in Iraq, particularly the Shia militias.
Soft-power struggles over Iraq’s airwaves are a clear sign that rival regional heavyweights are determined to exert their influence in the beleaguered country.
Part of that includes effectively and skillfully spreading propaganda and countering that of rivals in order to win “the war of narratives” in the country.
Until this war over Iraq’s skies is won, the one on the ground between an ambitious Iran and Iraq’s troubled neighbours also seems sure to smoulder on.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Satellite wars over Iraq