Baghdad targets media outlets covering protests

In addition to the intimidation and harassment of journalists covering the demonstrations, the authorities have also shut down national and Arab television stations.
Sunday 01/12/2019
Bypassing the shutdown. An Iraqi demonstrator reads a copy of Tuktuk,  a newspaper that aims to be the voice of the largest grassroots protest, during anti-government protests in Baghdad, November 17.(Reuters)
Bypassing the shutdown. An Iraqi demonstrator reads a copy of Tuktuk,  a newspaper that aims to be the voice of the largest grassroots protest, during anti-government protests in Baghdad, November 17.(Reuters)

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi authorities are accused of curbing media freedoms in order to prevent coverage of the mass anti-government protests that have rocked Baghdad and much of the country’s south.

In addition to the intimidation and harassment of journalists covering the demonstrations, the authorities have also shut down national and Arab television stations.

Iraq’s Communication and Media Commission (CMC) issued an order on November 21 to close the offices of a number of television channels, including Dijla, Al-Hadath, ANB, NRT, Al-Rasheed, Alhurra Iraq, Al-Sharqiya, Al-Fallujah, Al-Arabiya, Al-Hadath and Hona Baghdad.

The CMC issued a warning to other stations — Al-Sumaria, Asia, Rudaw, Sky News Arabia and Ur — “for violating the regulations of media licensing rule.” A number of radio stations have also been warned.

Established in 2004, the CMC is responsible for regulating the media work and communication.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and his allies accuse media outlets of turning the protesters against the government.

Iraqi security forces have been especially hostile to journalists since the outbreak of protests October 1 but the country was never media friendly to begin with. A report from Reporters Without Borders said Iraq ranks among the bottom 13% of countries when it comes to press freedoms and safety.

Mustafa al-Rikabi is a videographer for Dijla TV, in Muthanna province.

“Security forces beat me on the head and other places with rubber batons while I was filming the students’ protests (November 26),” said Rikabi. “My head bled and my colleagues drove me to the hospital. Six sutures were needed for my head and I had bruises in my hands and back. I presented the press card to the security forces but they did not stop beating me.”

In recent years, dozens of journalists were forced to flee their homes looking for safety. They tend to head either towards Turkey or to Europe.

This is not the first time that media outlets have faced violations. In October, an armed group attacked the NRT Arabic TV and Al-Hadath TV Baghdad offices due to their coverage of protests across Iraq. The group destroyed all the station’s devices to put them off air.

The head of the Iraqi Association for Defending the Rights of Journalists, Ibrahim al-Sarraj, said CMC was hasty in its decision.

“The government has no clear regulations governing the media work in Iraq,” said al-Sarraj. “The authorities, from time to time, intentionally block out the internet access and limit the use of social media applications to put an end to the demonstrations but the protesters innovated new means to unlock the ban.”

A journalist from Babil province, who wished to be anonymous for security reasons, said Abdul-Mahdi’s government is infringing against the constitutional right of journalists. “I received many phone threats by an unknown person when I used to cover the protests in Babil,” he said. “The caller asked me not to report any protests in the city, and if I do so, I will be killed.”

He added: “I have only the camera and my pen but the government and their allies, Iran-backed militias, have all kinds of weapons to kill the peaceful protesters just because they demand their fundamental rights.”

NetBlocks, a civil society group working at the intersection of digital rights, published that internet access has been disrupted in Nasiriya after the Iraqi security forces used lethal force against protesters, killing dozens of people.

Sarkawt Shams, a member of the Future bloc in parliament, said: “The Communication and Media Commission has no authority to shut TV channels down. It is unconstitutional. I will consult with media outlet owners and journalists how to tackle it at court.”

Political analyst Ghanim Abed said: “The government released this decision by the CMC to close any local or Arab TV which covered Iraq’s unrest and it (CMC) turned a blind eye to other TV [stations] which glorified the government.”

“The government wants to prevent journalists from showing the world what the Iraqi government did to the people like killing protesters, human rights violations, other bad things against the protesters,” said Abed.

“Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government repeatedly tried to subdue all the voices which try to support the protesters’ demands and curb the protesters who are seeking freedom and their basic rights,” he added.

“Once the authorities realised the power of media to disclose its violations against the peaceful demonstrators, it issued this (CMC) decision. We are living in the republic of fear, which is run by the corrupted religious parties. Iraq’s government listens to the international community and implements their demands but it gives the deaf ear to the people’s demands; moreover, it responds to the protesters by live ammunition and tear gas.”

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