Large number of journalists join elections fray in Iraq

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Earlier this month, Iraqi journalist Muntadher al-Zaidi – who shot to prominence in 2008 when he hurled a shoe at George W Bush and called the former US president “a dog” – announced his candidacy for the May 12 parliamentary elections.

“I want to lock up all the thieves who’ve robbed Iraq of its wealth,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that he plans to pass a law that would see “corrupt politicians held to account”.

The nomination of Zaidi with the Sairoon Coalition – an alliance between the Sadirst Movement and the Iraqi Communist Party – was celebrated by his supporters. But it was not received with the same level of enthusiasm among the wider Iraqi public as his “farewell kiss [to Bush] from the Iraqi people” 10 years ago.

The Sairoon Coalition led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is one of the five main Shia factions running in the election for a new parliament.

While many parties have taken the opportunity to emphasise a unified, cross-sectarian national identity in the run-up to the vote, Iraq remains plagued by divisions along sectarian and ethnic lines.

With a large number of Iraqi journalists contesting the upcoming elections, the first since the defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL also known as ISIS), observers fear that the lines between independent journalism and politics in Iraq are becoming increasingly blurred.

According to Iraq’s High Electoral Commission, there has been a record number of journalists and media personalities entering the electoral fray.

“We don’t know the exact number for journalists running in the election, but they are definitely in the tens. The numbers are visibly larger than in previous votes, said Hazem Al-Radinee, a member of the high board of electoral commissioners.

Iraqi journalist Muntadher al-Zaidi, who hurled his shoe at George W Bush in 2008, announced earlier this month his candidacy for the upcoming elections [AFP]

The move, which many have described as a visible phenomenon, has also raised the concerns of fellow journalists who believe that their profession will be marred by politics.

“Zaidi is one of dozens of journalists who’ve nominated themselves. We now ask who isn’t running rather than the other way around,” said Haider al-Karkhi, an independent journalist based in Baghdad, who thinks Zaidi’s nomination was not surprising.

Blurred lines

Political parties from across the various sectarian and ethnic divides have nominated journalists amongst their candidates.

One example is the famous TV presenter Ahmed al-Mulla Talal, who had previously competed in 2014 election with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia State of Law Coalition.

This time, Talal, who presents a daily political programme on Sharqiyya TV, is running with the Shia-leaning Al-Madani Party.

Although Talal pulled out of the race two months ahead of the vote, he continued to host his programme and work as a journalist while still being a candidate.

“He never discussed the Madani Party on his programme but he managed to garner so much support for it during his campaigning outside of his programme,” said Karkhi.

Also running for a Shia Coalition is journalist Hadee Jalo Maree – who used to be known for using social media to criticise politicians – from Al-Madani Party; and popular Al-Ahd TV presenter Wajih Abbas for the Fatah (Conquest) Coalition led by Hadi al-Amiri.

The Fatah Coalition acts as an umbrella for groups affiliated with the Shia militia groups of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), which participated in the war against ISIL.

More votes

“A lot of media personalities and social media activists were approached because of their popularity in order to get votes,” Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, said on the phenomenon.

Independent Iraqi journalist Marwan Hisham agreed: “Party leaders think journalists can give their parties a softer image for their political plans which will then become more palatable for the public.”

Amongst the most prominent Sunni Coalitions that have fielded a long list of journalist nominees is al-Qarar al-Iraqi which brings together Mutahidoon Alliance led by former Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi and the Arab Project led by well-known Sunni businessman Khamis al-Khanjar.

For Isam al-Ubaidi from the al-Qarrar al-Iraqi list, bringing journalists into politics is a logical move to attract more candidates.

Journalists who’ve nominated themselves were always involved with media platforms funded by parties. Entering politics is only a continuation of their work.

Zaid al-Ojeli, Head of Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in Iraq

“Every person has a constitutional right to run in the election and we chose who will run for us based on their background and political outlook,” he said.

Ubaidi, who sees nothing wrong with the partnership, said that parties should be able to capitalise on the popularity of journalists to attract votes.

“Journalists and media personalities can be amongst the best campaigners and advocates for a party and its electoral plan.

“They are public figures and this is something a party should take advantage of,” Ubaidi told Al Jazeera. 

‘Opinion journalist’

According to Zaid Ojeli, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in Iraq, there are two types of journalists in the region; independent reporters and editors, and others who represent a political view.

“Journalists who’ve nominated themselves were always involved with media platforms funded by parties and were never considered independent in the first place,” said Ojeli. “Entering politics is only a continuation of that work.”

But for others, the incentives offered to journalists joining parties and the financial gains tied with public offices may have attracted them, said Ojeli.

But journalists who jumped on the election band wagon say there is no contradiction between their entry into politics and their work in the media.

Poverty in Iraq among major issues in election campaigns

For renowned journalist Omar al-Jamal who is running with Sunni Coalition al-Qarar al-Iraqi, being an “opinion journalist” keeps his credibility in tact despite his entry into politics.

“As an opinions journalist, my political views and leanings have always been out there,” said Jamal who has worked as a presenter for a political programme on Fallujah TV, a satellite channel owned by Khanjar, one of al-Qarar al-Iraqi’s leaders and funders. 

“Parties want to win; it’s normal for them to try and garner the support of public figures and journalists to make their list stronger,” he added.

Although Jamal plans to remain in politics even if he does not win a seat in parliament, he sees a potential return to journalism in the future as unproblematic.

“Returning to the media after nominating myself would be normal because I would continue to raise awareness and draw public attention to the same views,” he explained.

“I was approached by Nujaifi’s office and after some deliberation I decided to run with the party because its political outlook is closest to my own,” Jamal told Al Jazeera.

Another of al-Qarar al-Iraqi’s journalist nominees is Manal Almoatasim, who like Jamal, sees her nomination as a continuation of her journalistic career.

With more journalists being nominated, observers fear that the lines between independent journalism and politics in Iraq are becoming increasingly blurred [AFP].

“I decided to run because I felt Iraq needed new faces and representatives. I chose al-Qarar because their ideas overlapped with mine,” Moatasim who worked as a journalist for a decade presenting various political TV programmes, said.

“I am a well-known journalist and this is an advantage when it comes to getting votes,” added Moatasim who believes her popularity will help her get into parliament.

‘No independent journalism’

According to Mansour of Chatham House, the overlap between politics and journalism in Iraq is not a new development.

“The lines between the media and politics have been blurred for a long time in Iraq. Journalism isn’t independent in any way,” said Mansour.

Despite this, the move has caused a stir on the streets of Baghdad and elicited a lot of reaction from journalists and the wider public alike.

If it were about representing the public, journalists have a more important role to play in society than in politics.

Zaid al-Ojeli, Head of Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in Iraq

“Some of these journalists think that by being in politics they can achieve some the people’s demands which they used to convey as journalists,” said Hisham, the journalist. 

“They don’t realise that even if they grasp the people’s needs, they won’t be able to push them forward if they get into parliament,” he added. 

“Instead they will lose their credibility and representability for the public,” said Hisham.

Ojeli agrees: “If it were about representing the public, journalists have a more important role to play in society than in politics.”

“A professional journalist would always remain within the realm of the media.”

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