Journalism under threat in Iraq’s south

Journalists say they have been targeted by gunmen who belong to pro-government militias and militant groups opposed to the government.
Sunday 02/12/2018
In harm’s way. Iraqi journalist Karrar Habeeb (R) while reporting in the southern city of Basra. (Azhar Al-Rubaie)
In harm’s way. Iraqi journalist Karrar Habeeb (R) while reporting in the southern city of Basra. (Azhar Al-Rubaie)

BASRA, Iraq - Journalists in Iraq’s Shia-dominated southern governorates are complaining that local authorities are intimidating them to prevent them from doing their job.

They say they have been targeted by gunmen who belong to pro-government militias and militant groups opposed to the government. Reporters Without Borders said journalists in Basra have been assaulted by security forces and pro-governmental parties.

Al-Amal Radio’s Safaa al-Furaiji was reportedly hit in the chest November 20 during a conference in the governorate building. The alleged attacker was Waleed Kitan, the head of the Basra’s governorate council.

Furaiji posted a video on Facebook denouncing the alleged assault. “I did not carry a knife or weapon. I was only carrying an audio recording device and a pen. Would you accept that?” he said.

Basra journalist Mohammed al-Jabri, who reports for Al-Taghier TV, a Sunni-oriented broadcaster, said he was the victim of verbal abuse by Kitan before allegedly being beaten and kicked out of the conference hall by Kitan’s security guards.

“Safaa and I were prevented from entering the Basra governmental council after I revealed corrupt practices and misuse of public water system at fish plants backed by politicians active in the local government,” he said.

“Politicians used their power against journalists instead of doing their patriotic duty to solve the problems in Basra.”

Iraq ranked 160th out of 180 countries listed in the 2018 “Press Freedom Index” and freedom of speech campaigners said there was a trend in threats against journalists.

“Many consider migrating outside Iraq if threats continue,” said Muntadher al-Karkoshi, the representative of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an Iraqi NGO that defends journalists. “I condemned the violation against journalists and Kitan should apologise for his actions.”

Ali al-Yousif, head of the media department at the Basra governorate’s council, did not respond to requests for comment.

Working for a media outlet that is owned by a militia does not guarantee safety in Iraq, either, because threats could come from rival militias.

“I was threatened by the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr’s armed group, after Asaib Ahl al-Haq split from the Mahdi Army,” said Safaa Wahim al-Ogaili, a news presenter in Baghdad who worked in 2011 with Al Ahad TV, which is owned by Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia leader Qais al-Khazali.

Al-Sadr has since disbanded the Mahdi Army.

“As an independent journalist, I work from everywhere, regardless who I work for, but militias don’t understand the concept,” Ogaili said. “I am disappointed and depressed. There is no journalistic freedom in Iraq. I want to flee Iraq and look for a place with better press environment.”

Yaarub Qahtan, 27, a Bagdad-based journalist, said: “Iraq is a fertile environment for journalism because it is rich in news events but there are many daily challenges, in particular, the difficulty to obtain information from relevant authorities to write a report. Sometimes we have to use phone’s cameras or secret cameras to video reports because authorities prevent us.”

“The journalists’ syndicate does not play any role for journalists. It is politicised and has become a partisan body,” Qahtan said.

Iltifat Nadhem Hamodi, 27, is from Basra but has fled to Canada. “Basra remains a conservative province where being a woman journalist is socially unacceptable. I faced harassment and that is the reason why I decided to flee Iraq,” Hamodi said in an interview via Skype.

“I feel sad because I could not complete what I started in Basra in terms of journalism. I encountered objections from women because of ignorance, customs and traditions,” Hamodi said.

Karrar Habeeb, 29, a journalist and fashion model in Basra, fled to Sweden after being threatened by Iran-backed militias in 2015. “One of the militia members asked me to change my style to be ‘more Islamic’ and stop wearing modern outfits when I was in one of the main streets in Basra to report,” he said.

“Here in Sweden I feel comfortable to wear what I like,” Habeeb said via WhatsApp.

An annual report for the Iraqi Journalists Rights Defence Association (IJRDA) said more than 200 journalists were exposed to violence in 2017. The alleged abuses included threats, detention without trial, attacks against media offices, assassinations and killings.

IJRDA Director Ibrahim al-Sarraj said “most attacks against journalists are committed by state officials, military or police forces or armed groups outside the umbrella of the state.”

“When a journalist writes about corruption within a ministry, the person will face attacks either by the minister, his security guards or by members of his clan. We have documented many cases,” Sarraj said.

The problem persists even when it reaches the courts. “The judiciary always closes the file,” said Abbas al-Faiadh, head of the journalists’ syndicate in Basra.

“Previously, one Basra journalist faced threats from militias. We knew who threatened him, so we tried to solve the problem peacefully because we knew that if we do not solve it, they would kill him,” Faiadh added.