Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kurdish Media from the Perspective of Goran Sabah

Goran Sabah is a Kurdish novelist and journalist. He writes in both Kurdish and English. He is the author of ‘Iraqi Fulbrighter‌, ‌Leader Aorter‌ and ‘Heart 2‌. He is a doctoral/GTA student at the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Lawrence, KS, USA. He is also a prominent freelance columnist and media trainer.

Interview by Aras Ahmed Mhamd

1. How do you define mass media in general terms?

The simplest definition, which help readers too, is that mass media is a means of public communication to reach a large audience. Seeing mass media everyday is easier to define it! Just look around yourself. On every corner, you see at least a medium telling you something: A TV, a cell phone, a newspaper, a magazine, a radio, a book, music, Internet, social media and videos.

More important than the definition is what message do they carry and what target do they seek? Media scholar Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.” He meant that the medium, or manner, through which the message is transmitted, shapes the meaning of the message. Different types of media have different strengths and weaknesses, and how people perceive a story depends on how they receive it.

For example, television is primarily a visual media. Strong pictures and videos affect television viewers more than words, and pictures convey emotion better than arguments or discussion. Television viewers, therefore, are more likely to remember how a story made them feel than the actual details of the story.

Print media, in contrast, is better than visual media at communicating details and information. An average newspaper story, for example, contains substantially more facts than a comparable television story. This is not to say that television news is inferior to print media; the two simply communicate information differently.

Example: A debate in 1960 between presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy demonstrated that the medium truly is the message. Many people listened to the debate on the radio, whereas others watched it on television. Although a majority of radio listeners felt that Nixon had won the debate, a majority of television viewers thought that Kennedy had won.

2. How many types of media are there in South Kurdistan beyond the traditional media outlets: radio, television, newspaper?

There is online media too. Other types of media like wire services and cable TV do not exist yet in Kurdistan. Social media, of course, is almost everywhere. Weblogs—known colloquially as blogs— as another form of media, have become very influential since the start of the 21st Century. Leading bloggers write their opinions on a variety of issues, and thousands of people respond on message boards. Although many blogs are highly partisan and inaccurate, a few have been instrumental in breaking big stories.

3. How important is freedom of the media, taking into consideration the division of the biggest (not most influential) media channels between the ruling and the opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan? 

It depends on what the Kurdish duopoly power calls Kurdistan. Do they call it democratic, which I believe it is, or something else? Free speech is an inseparable part of democracy. If they think the region is democratic, then they are obliged to accept free speech; otherwise, they lie to everyone. Therefore, it is very important for democracy. Absence of free speech means absence of progress.

4. How do you view and evaluate the current media situation in Iraq‌s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region?

I think the media in Kurdistan can be classified into four groups. First, state media, which includes the websites from the departments of the KRG, parliamentary TV and online wire. Second is the media that comes from political parties, which include almost all the media in Kurdistan.

Third, media of opposition, which is the media channels of the opposition groups (the Movement for Change - Gorran - and others who consider themselves as opposition, such as Islamic groups).

Finally, there is independent media. I think, however, there is no truly independent media in the world. We can say the content is independent, but the funding source comes from somewhere. A story is defined differently by each medium of the groups. So, the current situation in Kurdistan is chaotic and they all distort information and people. There are some successful endeavors, though. For instance, Rudaw Media Network, Awena, Hawlati, and NRT TV are going in the right direction.

5. What do you think is the role and duty of media in this digital world? What are some of the problems of the Kurdish media and how can they be overcome?

Media has a big role and responsibility: making unheard voices heard, invisible and unseen issues and/or people visible, educating people, providing accurate information, opening the knots, making unclear things clear and most importantly moving and/or creating public opinion. However, once media is politicized or becomes business, the roles and duties mentioned above do not operate properly.

Media, not only in Kurdistan but also everywhere in the world, has problems. Some of the problems in Kurdish media are:

- Lack of professionalism in gathering, reporting, writing, presenting information.

- Lack of media management: Kurdish media has few successful managers.

- Lack of institutionalized media: One cannot tell who is who and who is doing what in TV, radio, or newspaper.

- Journalists in Kurdistan, in general, are not good writers. I always say it is a must that all journalists be good writers, but the reverse is not a must; meaning a writer is not necessarily a journalist, but they could be.

- Kurdish media does not meet international media standards.

- The reluctance to fire older, but poor journalists.

- The Kurdistan Syndicate of Journalists.

-  Many journalists do not see their work as a profession: they are not passionate about what they do. They are not only journalists; meaning they are not dedicated to their work.

- Underpayment.

- The authorities still do not understand the media and look at journalists as if they are spies.

To overcome these issues, we have to first make officials and journalists realize what journalism is. Both should follow media law and respect each other. Journalists must become good writers. More training could also help.

6. From your experience, can we state that there are independent media agencies in Kurdistan, be it in radio, television, or newspaper?

As I said, there is no independent media anywhere in the world. I think professional media is a better phrase than "independent". We have some approaches, such as Rudaw, NRT, Awena and Hawlati, which are just at the beginning of the path of media professionalism. To make clear what media professionalism is, I mention the indicators, which are developed by the Media Sustainability Index-2009:

Reporting is fair, objective, and well sourced.
Journalists follow recognized and accepted ethical standards.
Journalists and editors do not practice self-censorship.
Journalists cover key events and issues.
Pay levels for journalists and other media professionals are
sufficiently high to discourage corruption.
Entertainment programming does not eclipse news and
information programming.
Technical facilities and equipment for gathering, producing,
and distributing news are modern and efficient.
Quality niche reporting and programming exists (investigative,
economics/business, local, political).

7. How is media connected to holding balance, professionalism, and honesty with regard to the fact that Kurdistan is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic region? How can we find a compromise?

Kurdish media, generally, does not respect religions well. We see many religious men are interviewed in a very provocative, funny and distorted way. Worse than this, some media is badly used by religious men to win people's emotions. That needs a lot of work to reach a compromise.

8. From your experience, what are the most important features of an influential journalist?

A good writer is passionate about their job, armed with knowledge, intellectual, knows how to apply the basics of journalism properly: the WH questions and the process of receiving and sending out information.

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