Iraq: Building Civil Society
In Iraq, there have been few opportunities for Iraqis to engage in meaningful, non-violent activities that embody a pluralistic and just view of society. However, despite its enormous challenges, Iraq has a well-educated population, active in creating civic associations - an essential pillar of democracy. In addition, the recent emergence of an autonomous civil society is one of the more positive features of the current situation.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) have already proven their ability to play a positive role in the stabilization of the country by engaging on key human rights issues, and by promoting ecumenical and multi-ethnic values as the core of an Iraqi civic nationalism. CSOs have also consolidated the governance of the country by bringing citizens, their elected representatives, and civil servants together to find practical solutions for concrete problems. The major challenge in further developing Iraqi civil society has been, and still is, to overcome the lack of know-how and experience in running democratic institutions after years of dictatorship and authoritarianism.
In 2003, Alternatives began tackling this problem head-on. We put in place a program dedicated to the emergence of a dynamic civil society and a pluralist and independent media, which together can effectively promote the economic, social, political and cultural rights of all Iraqis while supporting the long-term and institutional democratization of the country. Financed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) between 2005-2007 and 2009-2010, and by the European Commission (EC) since 2009, our program's two principal components remain: 1) Reinforcing Iraqi civil society and 2) Supporting independent Iraqi media.
Component 1: Reinforcing Iraqi Civil Society
Since 2003, Alternatives has been supporting many civil society organisations in Iraq. In 2004, our work led to the creation of an important national network of civil society organisations called the Iraqi Democratic Future Network (IDFN). The IDFN is a network of democratic, non-sectarian and secular civil society organisations, working for the peaceful coexistence of all Iraqi people and for the socio-economic development of Iraq. Since its inception it has lead several very successful campaigns in collaboration with other Iraqi social organisations in favour of human rights - particularly the rights of women, children and ethnic and religious minorities, as well as education and democratisation of Iraq. From its founding four in 2004, the IDFN now counts 16 Iraqi civil society organisations.
Component 2: Supporting Iraqi Media
From 2004 to 2007, Alternatives and our Iraqi partners helped promote international journalism standards in Iraq, including the writing of a Code of Ethics for the Iraqi press. We worked with independent media, and excluded ethnic and religious media, implementing numerous activities including the training of journalists in the of written media (print and electronic), radio and television.
Writing a Code of Ethics proved challenging, as the Iraqi media were not used to collaborating and working with their rivals. At that time, violence in Iraq was at its peak and was often encouraged by ethnic, religious and political media. Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Sunni, Shi’a and Christians each owned their own media empires and promoted their own sectarian agendas, contributing relatively little to the public debate as they focused on supporting their allies or attacking their adversaries. In 2008, for instance, Reporters Without Borders revealed a report detailing how for six years, Iraq had been the most dangerous country in the world for practicing journalism.
To deal with the situation, we worked with the government, religious, partisan and independent media in order to encourage mutual dialogue and openness, and reduce violent and the hateful public discourse that fuelled the physical violence throughout the country. Simultaneously, we focused on giving maximum assistance to five specific media organisations to ensure they could transform into free and independent media outlets. These five media organisations were:
- Aswat Al-Iraq: an independent press agency funded by the UNDP and Reuters based in Erbil and Baghdad, partner in the first phase of the project.
- Al-Ahali: a weekly newspaper, liberal and independent, published in Arabic and based in Baghdad. The staff of the newspaper participated in the majority of the activities of the first phase.
- Awene: a weekly independent newspaper, published in the Kurdish language, based in Sulaimaniyah
- Assabah: a daily newspaper published in Arabic and financed by the Iraqi government; Based in Baghdad and considered to be the first newspaper sold in Iraq.
- Al-Adala: an Islamic daily newspaper published in Arabic and based in Baghdad. After the elections of January 2009, the owner, Iraqi Vice-President Adel Abdmehdi, decided to transform his newspaper into an independent media outlet.
- 16 civil society organisations (CSOs) across Iraq are capacitated and well trained in over seven essential fields relevant to their work, particularly with regards to advocacy for human rights and democratisation. All 16 Iraqi Democratic Future Network (IDFN) members have stronger administrative and organisational skills and are better able to write project proposals.
- IDFN members, together with other Iraqi CSOs, contributed in amending the electoral law, allowing widows fair access to government compensation.
- As a result of the support from Alternatives since 2004, the IDFN is now seen as a leading Network in electoral monitoring, and has managed to secure funding from international agencies for its ongoing work on civic education. Refer to the Friedrich Ebert website for further details.
- The project brought a group of committed media executives together, which would not have been possible otherwise given the factionalism of the former situation. As a result, a network was created that is changing the Iraqi media environment for the better. Trust was established between the participants, so they can now work together to create solutions to daily problems facing Iraqi independent medias.
- The journalists have been trained to cover elections for the benefit of voters rather than political parties, and to avoid being manipulated by politicians.
- The project's media participants are now themselves seriously engaged in planning the future of the IDFN, and committed to transforming the quality and focus of Iraqi journalism.
- Three participating newspapers have dedicated a full page to gender equality issues.