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What influences journalists’ attitudes toward freedom of information?

Jing Guo's picture

The Government of Iraq recently withdrew lawsuits against news media and journalists nationwide and adopted an access to information law in the Kurdish region. Jing Guo explores the range of opinions journalists have regarding freedom of information in a country experiencing political transition.

In December of last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced the withdrawal of all government lawsuits against news media and journalists under the previous administration, signaling a departure from the media policies of his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki. This announcement, in addition to the adoption of an access to information law in the Iraqi Kurdistan region a year ago, marked a positive step toward freedom of expression and information in the post-authoritarian country.
 
In Iraq, a functioning national freedom of information law is long overdue for supporting an independent media sector and the public’s right to know, both of which are among the fundamental pillars of democracy.  With open access to government meetings and records, journalists can serve as conduits of information between the governing and the governed.  At the same time, citizens and journalists can help strengthen democratic governance by holding those in power accountable.
 
Today, more than a decade after the end of full state control, Iraqi journalists are still largely “in transition.” As proponents and users of the legislation, their views of freedom of information are important in the passing and implementation of the law. What do journalists think about accessing government information in their country? What factors shape their views?

In a recently published study, researchers at the University of Arizona developed a five-dimensional model measuring micro- and macro-level forces influencing journalists’ attitudes toward access to information. By surveying 588 Iraqi journalists, they found that:

  1. At an “individual level,” more education and years in the profession will lead to a stronger belief in the right to access official meetings and records.
  2. At a “media routine level,” both professional ethics and full-time employment are significant predictors of watchdog attitudes toward information transparency.
  3. In addition, at an “ideological level,” Kurdish journalists were more likely to support freedom of information than journalists of other ethnic backgrounds. This can be attributed to the early exposure to democratic norms in the Kurdish region a decade prior to the rest of the country.
 The researchers also reached other intriguing conclusions:
  1. At an “organizational level,” journalists at state-run versus privately-owned media outlets did not differ in their opinions. Moreover, restrictions on news reporting as a result of media ownership did not seem to deter journalists from pursuing information access. Regardless of the constraints, journalists adhering to strong normative codes in the profession can be more resistant than compromising toward their employers’ expectations.
  2. While the Internet is believed to be a powerful tool often associated with freedom of information, the use of the Internet surprisingly did not necessarily affect Iraqi journalists’ attitudes in support of access to government records or meetings. This can be a result of the infrequent use of the Internet among the surveyed Iraqi journalists (this is at an “extra-media” level according to the researchers).
This important piece of research prompts me to think about two things. The Arab Spring has instilled the idea in many that the Internet—especially social media—harnesses democratizing power by facilitating unobstructed flows of information and political debates. Yet, considering Iraq, a country now facing both the lowest Internet penetration rate in the region and a decimated civil society, we have to be mindful of generalizing about the role of the Internet in all politically transitioning countries. After all, technology does not guarantee change. In addition, the Internet shutdowns in Iraq to curtail extremists’ outreach suggests that social media are no longer the domain of liberal youth or activities, but rather a double-edge sword which can serve competing agendas across the political map.
 
Secondly, privately run media are commonly equated with independent media. Yet this study paints a more nuanced picture. Although media privatization has been a key advance in Iraq, non-state media outlets can often represent political interests of religious groups, regional powers, and foreign actors. Thus, disentangling the complex nature of private media in an emerging democracy is a necessary step to establishing truly independent media institutions. The relationship between media ownership and journalists’ gatekeeping attitudes toward access of information is also an area worth further exploration.
 
Unlike common inquiries about newsgathering or production, this study offers a rare probe into journalists’ opinions about freedom of information in a post-authoritarian state. Imbedded in the five-dimensional model, it also discusses the impact of religious tensions and western media training on journalists in Iraq. Overall, it is well worth a read.
 


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