During the nine long months in which Iraqi forces struggled to retake the city, the battle to liberate Mosul from Da’esh was constantly in the spotlight of both Iraqi and Western media but its portrayal differed widely. Iraqi media’s access to the battle was limited by the Iraqi government’s War Media Cell and government officials frequently met with journalists and editors to remind them that they were an important part of the war effort. As such, outlets relied heavily on official statements and interviews with military, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and Peshmerga sources. Leaked information often reflected positively on the Iraqi forces’ efforts or else displayed the barbaric cruelty of Da’esh’s practices and the extended suffering of Iraqi IDPs. Rarely, prestigious outlets such as Al-Mada would publish features on politically sensitive issues regarding the PMF and reporting abuses by Iraqi forces against civilians.
Western media, on the other hand, had a wider access to U.S. and Western officials to obtain their information and was more likely to highlight the travails of the battle, the fractures in the wide-ranging Iraqi forces coalition, retaliation against Sunni civilians, battle setbacks, and Western concerns. In particular, Western media emphasized the controversies surrounding the PMF, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s delicate balancing act to control the Iraqi forces, U.S. troop levels, civilian casualties, and the uncertain political future of the city. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, highlighted the scale of reconstruction efforts in Mosul after Da’esh’s defeat.
Often, Iraqi media relied on Western media reports to disseminate information about the negative aspects of the battle, especially the casualty counts of Iraqi troops. Widely-read outlets such as Al-Sumaria, Al-Mada, Al-Ghad Press, and Al-Massalah translated Western reports from outlets such as The Daily Mirror, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Guardian into Arabic and republished them, keeping a particular eye out for statements by U.S. military and political officials on the battle. For example, Al-Sumaria cited the Financial Times in a story about Saudi Arabia’s anger with Qatar over ransoms paid to Shia militias in Iraq. Iraqis also had access to Saudi outlets, which frequently published negative reports on the PMF, whom Saudi outlets invariably referred to as “Shia militias.”
In contrast with its coverage of the battle to retake Fallujah, Iraqi media rarely published reports about humanitarian issues or the treatment of civilian detainees unless an Iraqi political coalition issued a statement on the matter. Only in the very last weeks of the battle did Iraqi media begin to publish op-eds concerned about the political and military future of Mosul after its liberation, a topic Western media consistently worried over throughout the battle.
One commonality between Western and Iraqi coverage of the battle emerged on the days surrounding the city’s official liberation as outlets launched a slew of op-eds surrounding the question of “now what?” although Western coverage worried about Iran’s influence and Iraqi coverage worried about a return to war. Despite the long-term differences in Iraqi and Western media coverage, as the dust began to settle and the euphoria of liberation began to fade, outlets from both sides turned to the devastating scale of destruction in the city and the problems facing its residents in terms of security, aid, and services.
Sarah Lord is an Exovera Arabic media analyst working on the Baghdad desk. She obtained her M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from George Washington University and has previously worked in Beirut, Lebanon and Ramallah, Palestinian Territories.