Iraq’s media are still censored

Sunday 04/09/2016
Iraqi security forces stand guard outside the headquarters of the Iraqi journalists’ syndicate in Baghdad during the 2014 press syndicate elections.

London - The importance of freedom of the press is unques­tioned. Without freedom of the press, the Panama Papers and News of the World scandals would never have surfaced. Freedom of the press vi­tally provides accountability for a government to its citizens, ensur­ing any allegations can be investi­gated, something the increasingly corrupt Iraqi government lacks.

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the liberation of media rules produced a flurry of new media outlets in Iraq. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provi­sional Authority, at the time stated: “Three weeks after I got to Baghdad there were already a hundred news­papers being printed in Baghdad.”

Today, Iraq boasts 49 free-to-air satellite channels. At many Iraqi news conferences the speaker is surrounded by so many branded microphones that it is sometimes impossible to see who is talking.

Despite the number of media out­lets, Iraq ranks 153rd out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Freedom House stated that Iraq’s media are “not free”, scoring it 72 out of 100 on the Press Freedom Score.

Since 2014, the Iraqi government has played an increasing role in media censorship even though the post-Saddam constitution pledged to protect freedom of speech.

The Communications and Me­dia Commission, as part of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), re­leased vague directions on how the media should report the affairs of the country. Guidelines suggested that only positive news stories should be released and stories that do “not accord with the moral and patriotic order required for the war on terror” were banned.

Being ambiguous, the guidelines have been used to pressure various media agencies into inaccurate re­ports or forced some to shut down. In early 2016, Qatar-based Al Ja­zeera had its licence to operate in Iraq revoked for apparently “con­tinuing violations and offences and persistent media discourse insti­gating violence and sectarianism”. Local media such as al Baghdadia, a channel popular among the Sunni minority, were also shut down.

Albasheer Show, an internation­ally acclaimed satirical TV pro­gramme presented in the same light as Comedy Central’s Daily Show, suffered a similar fate and was forced off Al Sumaria by the government. The programme, which has enjoyed online success, refused to change its style, which pokes fun at those deemed corrupt, both governmental and religious authorities, figures who are other­wise regarded as infallible by the wider society.

Media censorship is not limited to the government. Journalists at­tempting to disclose allegations of corruption live in fear of retribu­tion. Zahir al-Fatlawi was fined 1 million dinars — about $850 — for attempting to shed light, with evi­dence, on corruption within the Ministry of Housing.

In a similar case, Adnan Hussein, editor-in-chief of Baghdad-based al Mada, wrote an article criticis­ing Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari only to be met with death threats. Examples such as these have created an environment of fear for journalists.

The diversity of Iraq’s media re­flects the variety in the political sphere. Each political party, militia and occasionally individual gov­ernmental figure has its own satel­lite channel. Undoubtedly, none of these non-independent channels dare say anything against the nar­rative their sponsors address.

Some of Iraq’s largest channels are affiliated with large parties. Examples include al Forat TV and Ammar Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, al Afaq supporting ex-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and Baladi being loyal to Jaafari.

Although Iraq has a variety of channels, the lack of independence means the quality of media cover­age is poor and severely biased.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Brus­sels Tribunal, Iraq is one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist. ISIS has played a massive role in the dan­ger; however, the various sects and militias flourishing within Iraq are also often a threat to media mem­bers.

Due to Iraq’s weak government, the law is in the hands of one of the many factions that have the abil­ity to use force. Should a journalist speak out against one of the pow­erful political parties or religious scholars, he puts his life at risk. In April, journalists from al Nas and al Mustaqabal were attacked after criticising a Shia cleric.

Let us not forget that Iraq is placed within the backdrop of high levels of censorship within the wider Middle East and, compared to other countries within the re­gion, Iraq has far greater levels of freedom. Nonetheless, Iraq is tak­ing steps backward with a draft bill proposing to further limit freedom of expression being met by opposi­tion from the Iraqi Union for Free­dom of Expression.

For Iraq to progress, to prevent further corruption and figures acting dauntlessly in their self-in­terests, freedom of press must be maintained. Each allegation of cor­ruption must be fully investigated and not met with death threats. Without accountability, corrup­tion will remain enshrined within the failing government much like the sectarianism that the new bills promised to remove.