Today Arab television channels are in the thousands, viewers from across the middle-east can zap through a large variety of channels about news, music, drama, films, sports, game shows, education, religion and many more. Television, much more than the internet, impacts and informs a large part of daily life in west Asian households. However, it was Iraq who took the first step in setting up its own television broadcasting channels and distributing the first independent trilingual (Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen) television programs in the region. In this article we focus on the origins and the trajectory of Iraqi television, and why and in what way it happened in Iraq.
The history of Iraq’s first television station and programming.
In the early 1950s after a sponsored exhibition of television cameras and broadcasting technology in Baghdad the Iraqi monarchy took serious measures and purchased some of this technology to introduce television to ordinary Iraqis. Soon a small studio was set up in Salihiya, Baghdad, with the help of three Iraqi engineers in 1956. Iraq’s first television channel was then inaugurated by King Faisal II and 120 television sets were distributed to the various clubs and café’s throughout the country. The first program that was screened on Iraqi television was a celebratory concert by famous Iraqi singer Afifa Eskander. The channel's programming had three parts, one in Arabic, Kurdish and Turkmen as to appeal to Iraq's various ethnicities and language groups. In 1967 Iraq’s second TV station was opened called Kirkuk TV.
In the 1950s and 1960s television was mainly a hub for music and poetry while political media was reserved for newspapers and radio. Television did give a major boost to the spread of Iraqi culture and artistry. Music, which was for a long time mainly an audial experience, now became an audiovisual one. Music was combined with sceneries of landscapes and people meant by the artists to give meaning to the lyrics expressed in the music. Iraqis also became more familiar with the artists who made this music as well rather than only being attached to a song without knowing or seeing the artist behind the song. Moreover, music and poetry helped Iraqis come together as a country. Iraqi television helped Iraqis see the commonality between different Iraqis from various ethnic, religious and regional backgrounds because of the diverse programming. Iraqi music expressed a specifically Iraqi experience as it underwent major transformations since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917. Iraqi television therefore spread a cultural framework where Iraqis could see themselves as one united group.
However, initially when the television was introduced to Iraq, intellectuals were quite critical of this medium and its potential. For many thinkers of that time the television was superficial and over-sentimental rather than having a constructive effect on the development of Iraq. In their view television introduced people to frivolous distractions and behaviour like celebrity imitation and an obsession with entertainment rather than intellectual consciousness. Yet, despite this critique on Iraqi television as frivolous and apolitical, Iraqi television programming like anywhere else in the world was deeply political and this only became gradually more explicit with time.
Television and decolonization
Iraq like any other country in the 1950s saw obtaining and generating one’s own access to media as a way to express independence from one’s former colonizer, it was therefore part of decolonization. This is quite remarkable given the fact that more developed countries like Turkey and the Zionist regime only got its television in the late 1960s, where decolonization was not part of its politics. In addition, as the Iraqi population expanded and increasingly moved to the cities, television was meant as a medium to shape and integrate the people in a common understanding of the country and their fellow compatriots. In contrast to newspapers, which were mainly read by the elite, television had mass appeal and would allow emerging post-colonial governments to connect with the general populace more effectively. Indication of the awareness of the mobilization potential of television in Iraq is that during the many coups in the country, taking control of television broadcasting was an important part of that effort.
Under the rule of Abdel Karim Qasim, television remained mainly about providing entertainment but for one exception: the Mahdawi trials. Collaborators of the previous regime were tried in the newly established people's court. It was decided to broadcast these trials in an effort to demonstrate to the Iraqi population that the new regime adhered to justice and to clarify who ‘our’ enemies were. People were quite impressed by the performance of Gadhi AlAbbas Al-Mahdawwi: the colonel who was in charge of this affair. This television broadcast was a way for the masses to canalize their frustrations with the monarchy. Some argue that it was also a useful way to pacify the frustrated Iraqi people. For the Qasim government it was easier to manage the frustrations against the monarchy by the people when they were sitting down and watching television rather than out on the streets and expressing their grievances about the past regime in large groups. These trials however were the beginning of the gradual politicization of Iraqi television and the end of television being merely a medium for entertainment. A sign of this politicization is that when Abdel Karim Qasim was murdered his body was dragged to the nearest television studio just to be filmed so that people knew his era was over.
Today television still remains an important medium where various groups, political tendencies and organizations project their hopes, aspirations and interests to a large audience. Despite incursion of the internet into Iraq, television remains a highly contested field for politics but also for education and culture. While historically speaking Iraq only had three television channels today it has channels in the hundreds. Iraqi television remains one of the most pluralistic television landscapes in the Middle East but it still struggles for independence. For example during the American occupation era (2003-2011) studios or television shows uttering criticism of the United states were quickly closed down. Today there is more press freedom in Iraq than it ever was yet this openness and the significance of television for Iraqi politics makes it also vulnerable for dangerous cooptation by foreign powers and undermining an independent political process.