Reporters Without Borders

Media freedom under threat from all sides

Media freedom under threat from all sides

Published on Thursday 12 April 2012. Updated on Tuesday 12 June 2012.
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In the light of the Information Technology Crimes law before the Iraqi parliament, and the proliferation of attacks on journalists in recent weeks, Reporters Without Borders is extremely concerned about freedom of information in Iraq.

Repressive bill

Reporters Without Borders is worried about the cyber crime bill, on which the Iraq parliament is due to vote shortly. The law, approved at a first reading last July, represents a real threat to freedom to report the news online. The crimes it covers are far too broadly defined and the penalties are disproportionate.

These include violations of religious, moral, family or social principles and the promotion of terrorist ideas. The bill provides for custodial sentences up to life imprisonment for using computers and the Internet to undermine state security or national unity, or for publishing information on trafficking in drugs or people (article 5).

The draft does not provide appropriate protection for news organizations and their sources. Technical providers are held responsible for content channeled through them and the guarantees protecting users’ personal details are too weak.

(Read an open letter to the Iraqi authorities by ARTICLE 19 and Access Now signed by several NGOs and expressing concern about the repercussions of the law on basic freedoms and free speech).

Threatening statement

The interior ministry published a statement on 12 April aimed at all media organizations working in Iraq, domestic as well as foreign, urging them always to identify their sources inside the ministry and threatening prosecution if they refused to reveal them.

As has been previously reported, Iraqi law guarantees journalists the right to maintain the confidentiality of their sources and they can be forced to reveal them only in certain individual cases and by a court decision.

The independent member of parliament, Safia Al-Suhail, said two days ago these demands by the ministry were “contrary to the spirit of the Iraqi constitution and the new democratic order”. She urged parliament to change the law to protect journalists’ rights from the “arbitrary practices” of the executive.

Journalists harassed by security services

Journalists were reported to have been routinely hampered in the their work by security measures put in place for the Arab League summit that took place on 29 March. In a statement in Arabic, the Journalistic Freedom Observatory (JFO), a partner organization of Reporters Without Borders, reported that Iraqi security forces behaved in a crass manner towards journalists, obstructing them in their work, preventing them from using main roads and stopping them from taking photographs, whatever subject they were reporting on.

Some journalists reported to the JFO that some officers told them the commission in charge of security at the summit had ordered the security forces to do all they could to make things difficult for journalists on the ground.

Since the end of the summit, it seems there has been no let-up.

Salim Mohamed Al-Khalifawi, a reporter with the Saudi news agency SPA, was arrested by riot police on 30 March in Dhi Qar province south of Baghdad at a demonstration by followers of the Shi’ite religious leader, Mahmoud Al-Hassani Al-Sarkhi.

The police beat him with sticks, seized his video camera and ordered him to leave the area. Al-Khalifawi, however, showed his press card and his name tag was clearly visible to the officers.

As he was leaving the area after the incident, he was again stopped and questioned by members of the security forces. His press card and details were checked. He was then taken the police headquarters to have his identity recorded. His Iraqi journalists’ union card was confiscated.

The police took him to an unidentified location where he was held for three days. He appeared before the Nasariyah appeal court on 1 April and was subsequently freed on bond.

Bashar Mandalawi, a freelance journalist, and Marc Nexon, a French reporter for the magazine Le Point, were held at a checkpoint and questioned for several hours by Iraqi troops on 5 April. They were working on an article and interview south-west of Baghdad. An intelligence officer accompanied them to their meeting place and was present during the interview with their contact.

On the same day, the journalist Saad al-Awsi wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asking him to halt the persecution to which he had reportedly been subjected by the premier’s supporters, in particular inside the intelligence services.

Al-Awsi spent 16 months in detention, between April 2010 and August 2011, over an article criticizing the means by which al-Maliki achieved power.

On 6 April, riot police tried to prevent a crew from the Al-Sumaria TV station from covering a demonstration in Baghdad. The police forcibly seized the crew’s camera. It was returned after the station’s management complained to the authorities, in exchange for a promise not to shoot any film.

Terrorist attacks

Journalists in Iraq have also been the target of more serious violence. On 10 April, Khamis Al-Khazraji, a correspondent for the satellite station Al-Ahad, was the target of an assassination attempt in Salahaddin province, north of Baghdad. He was driving home when a gunman opened fire on his car. He escaped but was unable to identify his attacker.

In the same area, Kamiran Salaheddin, a presenter with the station Salahaddin TV since 2005, was fatally wounded on 2 April by a bomb placed under his car.

South of Tikrit, a photojournalist escaped injury on 1 April from a bomb that could have killed him. The Iraqi satellite station Al-Sumaria News said the device was planted near his home and wounded a member of his family.

Also on 1 April, Al-Sumaria News reported that two mortar bombs hit the premises of the TV stations Al-Irakia and Al-Mowselya in the Karameh district of Mosul, wounding a security guard.

TV programs taken off the air

On 3 April, the National Communications and Media Commission ordered Al-Sumaria to take two programs off the air and threatened to revoke the station’s broadcasting license unless it complied.

The first, “Ako Fad Wahid”, a humorous programme that presents off-beat news stories, was halted permanently. The commission ruled that it did not respect the rules of decency and stirred up communal tension.

The second, “Kalam Leks”, which deals with topical and social issues, was suspended for a month. The ruling followed an edition about evangelical churches in Iraq. An official complaint signed by several clergymen accused the program of besmirching their community.

A station employee told JFO that Al-Sumaria “felt it was in the government’s sights but didn’t know the reason” and said the broadcaster planned to take the matter to court.

Hasan Shaaban, a lawyer and activist with the legal protection centre for Iraqi journalists affiliated to the JFO, said the media commission’s rulings contravened articles of the Iraqi constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press. He added that offences against religion and decency were “by their nature difficult to identify”.

(Photo: AFP)

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