No free press in Iraq

Attacks on both local and international journalists across Iraq have not stopped to this day, finds Al Jazeera.

Dahr Jamail Outside
Obama had high praise for the state of press freedom in Iraq, at a press conference in 2011 [GALLO/GETTY]

Baghdad, Iraq – Iraq has been one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists since 2003.

While scores of newspapers and media outlets blossomed across Baghdad following the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the spring of 2003, the media renaissance was also met with attacks on both local and international journalists across the country – that have not stopped to this day.

Iraq was the deadliest country in the world for journalists every year from 2003 to 2008, the third deadliest in 2009, and the second deadliest in 2010 and 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

CPJ documents 150 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003, a number, as high as it is, which pales in comparison to that logged by the group Brussels Tribunal (BT).

Logging the name, date, incident description, and source when available, BT reports that 341 Iraqi journalists and media workers have been killed since the invasion. 

Adding to the overt physical risks from a dangerous security situation and threats of kidnapping, Iraqi journalists have told Al Jazeera that they now face threats from the Iraqi government itself, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Adnan Hussein, the editor-in-chief and deputy director of Iraq’s Al-Mada newspaper, one of the largest in the country, wrote an article about then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in 2006.

“I mentioned that he talked too much, so I received an email from one of his supporters,” Hussein explained at his office in Baghdad. “The email said: ‘If you are in Baghdad we will kill you and throw you in the garbage like the dogs’.”

“So how is our situation?” Hussein asked. “Certainly we are afraid. I give you this example, and it still exists today.”

Atmosphere of fear

On September 8, 2011, Iraqi journalist Hadi al-Mahdi was shot in his Baghdad home by assailants using pistols with silencers. Mahdi had hosted a thrice-weekly radio show covering social and political issues, including government corruption, bribery and sectarianism.

On his Facebook page, Mahdi had regularly organised pro-democracy demonstrations and publicised threats he had received. Having become afraid for his safety, two months before his murder, Mahdi had stepped down from his radio show.

Adnan Hussein received a death threat that read: ‘If you are in Baghdad we will kill you and throw you in the garbage like the dogs’ [Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

“The killing of Hadi Mahdi created an atmosphere of fear,” Hussein said of the death of his colleague.

He explained that the Maliki government claimed to have recently passed a law that provided greater protections to Iraqi journalists, but that instead “the law limits our work and does not guarantee our rights”.

“Journalists here are now working in the streets naked,” he said. “They have no rights and no protections. Journalists cannot work and cover what needs to be covered because they are too exposed.”

One of Hussein’s colleagues recently accused an Iraqi military spokesman of being a hypocrite in one of his columns, and the spokesman filed a lawsuit against their paper for $6m compensation.

“I returned to Iraq one year ago [after working as the Managing Editor of Asharq Alawsat newspaper in London] to find a bad situation, because of the political situation,” Hussein concluded. “But now I feel it will worsen. The Iraqi government is not operating within any rules.”

Oday Hattem, Chairman of Iraq’s Society for Defending Press Freedom, agrees.

Hattem, who was arrested twice by Saddam Hussein’s regime for publishing articles that offended the government, knows first-hand about media repression.

“There is no freedom to work in journalism here – if we compare the journalism in Iraq with the West,” Hattem told Al Jazeera.

The large number of media outlets available in the country today, “does not necessarily mean there is freedom of the press, because every paper or TV channel belongs to a political party”, he said. 

Hattem believes the laws of journalism from Saddam’s era continue to prevent Iraqi journalists from criticising the government, and the fact that religious parties each have their own militia means they, too, are not to be criticised.

According to Hattem, if a journalists reports critically “that means this journalist will lose his life”.

Like Hussein, Hattem sees the situation worsening on all fronts.

“The political and freedom of speech situations are both descending,” he said. “Maliki launched an attack on freedom of speech in February 2010, when he arrested tens of journalists and human rights activists after the beginning of demonstrations in Baghdad.”

US President Barack Obama, during a December 12, 2011, press conference with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, had nothing but high praise for the state of press freedom in Maliki’s Iraq:

So we’re partnering to strengthen the institutions upon which Iraq’s democracy depends – free elections, a vibrant press, a strong civil society, professional police and law enforcement that uphold the rule of law, an independent judiciary that delivers justice fairly, and transparent institutions that serve all Iraqis.

Three days later, Iraq’s Society for Defending Press Freedom filed an appeal with Iraq’s High Federal Court against Maliki’s government and its “Journalists Rights Law”, which the group said contradicted four articles from Iraq’s constitution. 

undefinedSince 2003, Iraq has been in the top three most dangerous countries in the world for journalists [Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

Like most Iraqi journalists Al Jazeera spoke with, Hattem also received threats through what he said were “departments of the government”.

“I have had to change my address several times, and in 2008, my six-year-old daughter was kidnapped,” he explained.

Hattem received a death threat in February 2011 which caused him to leave the country for 30 days, “and a lot of my colleagues have left journalism because they have received threats from Shia parties and their militias”.

“In November 2011, there was another attempt to kidnap my daughter from in front of school,” Hattem said, adding that Maliki and his government are “controlling the media more now than even under Saddam”.

“After 2003, we hoped for full freedom of the press as it is in the west,” he added. “But the US does not want Iraq to be a democratic country. The spine of democracy is freedom of the press, but since 2003, the US forces never lifted a finger to stop violations against the press and freedom of journalists.”

‘You will be arrested or assassinated’

Yasser Faisal from Fallujah has worked as a freelance cameraman for Reuters since 2002, both in and out of Iraq.

He feels that working as a journalist in Iraq today is more difficult than it was under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“If you want to search for the truth about something and this thing is against the interests of the government, you will be either arrested or assassinated,” he told Al Jazeera.

Faisal said, after the withdrawal of US forces, “the situation has become even more dangerous” because “there are no international organisations or laws that can protect you, so you can only work if you have contacts or relations with the Iraqi army or police”.

He points to the fact that, like every other journalist Al Jazeera spoke with, any time Iraqi security forces are around, journalists are not allowed to take pictures or film, and censorship even within hospitals is alive and well.

Of the new law that supposedly protects Iraqi journalists, Faisal said simply, “it is not effective”.

Ibrahim al-Jassim, a reporter for the Al Masar satellite channel in Iraq, also pointed to the militia of the political parties as part of the problem Iraqi journalists face.

“We have many difficulties here,” he said, while standing nearby Baghdad’s busy Saadoun Street. “These are all dependent on the security situation.”

Jassim believes that the targeting of Iraqi journalists is happening “because of the Iraqi political parties not wanting the truth out. Our job is to seek the truth, and nobody here wants the truth to come out”.

A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch on Freedom of Expression in Iraq confirms this: “In 2010, Iraq remained one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist. Extremists and unknown assailants continue to kill media workers and bomb their bureaus…”

Many difficulties

Ahmed Rehayma, of Iraq’s Society for Defending Press Freedom, blames the government for the problems facing Iraqi journalists [Dahr Jamail/Al Jazeera]

Ahmed Rehayma, office director at the Society for Defending Press Freedom in Iraq again points to the government for the root of the current problems facing Iraqi journalists.

“This pressure from the government has happened to all of us,” he explained. “It’s a fact we cannot deny.”

Of his reporting for the Azzam newspaper up until four months ago, he said that he always pursued the truth, but that the government is “most certainly putting up obstacles”.  

He pointed to a story he wrote on how bomb detection devices used by the Iraqi military at checkpoints don’t really work.

“The Ministry of Interior tried to make me look like a troublemaker for doing this story,” he explained. “They stopped us on that story.”

Rehayma told of another instance where he was reporting on a fire and an Iraqi policeman made him delete his photos, and then became physically abusive.

“We know plenty of journalists who have horrible stories,” he said. “We see Maliki consolidating power and this concerns us, as it will make things hard for the media. Our media is in trouble now.”

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source: Al Jazeera