Journalists in Iraq shackled by arbitrary laws and insecurity
BAGHDAD - Journalists are often at risk while reporting on armed conflicts but in Iraq they have been deliberately attacked, arrested and intimidated by armed groups, government militias, tribes and political parties for addressing sensitive topics such as corruption.
Sheer difficulties and tremendous obstacles face journalists in their daily assignments and quest for information, especially when investigating corruption allegations involving prominent political or religious figures and powerful groups, said Mustafa Naser, president of the Association for Defending Press Freedom in Iraq.
“Although technically Iraq has a democratic political system, it lacks an effective and clear legal framework that ensures press freedom and allows journalists to access and publish information freely,” said Naser, who said he has been threatened more than once on the job.
He said his disclosure of the whereabouts of the Iraqi military after their sudden withdrawal from Mosul that was followed by the city’s invasion by Islamic State militants in 2014 almost got him killed.
“It was a big challenge, a perilous adventure that almost destroyed my life and career. The mere fact of investigating the conditions of the pullout was sufficient to draw my death warrant,” Naser said.
He told how he was forced to scrap information about weapons the army left behind and withdrawal orders given to the troops on the grounds that it jeopardised national security and exposed him to legal prosecution.
“I had no choice but to cut out the information. I received death threats and was really scared for my life,” Naser said.
Iraq is among the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, ranking 160th out of 180 countries, in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in April.
RSF said Iraq has no law on access to state-held information and investigative reporting on corruption or embezzlement exposes journalists to serious threats. While journalists work in a much-politicised environment in which the media are often regarded as political tools, killings of journalists generally go unpunished and investigations, if opened, produce no result.
The Association for Defending Press Freedom in Iraq recorded 231 violations against journalists in the country from May 2018-19. These included assassinations, death threats, prison sentences, physical attacks, arrests, confiscation of equipment, prosecutions, banning coverage and arbitrary dismissals.
Naser said journalists are worried by a proposed cybercrime law that penalises them for showing disrespect for “national or religious symbols.”
“The draft cybercrime law is a police legislation full of traps,” Naser said. “It provides for six types of penalties.
“If passed it will further tighten the noose on journalists, especially that there are no judicial authorities that can deal with cybercrimes, which is a totally new concept and this is where the danger lies.”
The proposed legislation stipulates prison sentences, including possible life imprisonment, for online posts that endanger “the independence, unity or integrity of the country, or its economic, political, military or security interests.”
RSF said the measure’s vague wording is alarming and liable to discourage the emergence of a free and independent press.
Iraqi journalist Rabi’ Nader stressed the importance of having a media law “to curb the chaos plaguing the world of journalism and the so-called social media press.”
“Nonetheless,” Nader said, “the proposed legislation necessitates crucial amendments to prevent it from becoming a tool (in the hands of authorities and political parties) to suppress the freedom of expression.”
“In addition to adequate laws, we need a certain mature political mentality for free press to work in Iraq. The big political powers don’t want press freedoms to be part of the democratic experience, which is a main obstacle for professional journalism in Iraq,” Nader added.
The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement May 3 — World Press Freedom Day — that restrictions imposed on media freedom are as strict as those which existed before 2003 under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
“At least ten attacks on journalists and local press institutions occurred in the first quarter of 2019. It is an alarming indicator in a country that is supposed to have moved from a dictatorship to democratic rule,” the observatory stated.
Incidents in which tribal gunmen kidnapped journalists and attacked press institutions for criticising prominent members and politicians of the tribe are common across Iraq. In some cases, the media outlet had to make apologies and pay financial reparations to the tribe.
RSF said the number of journalists held hostage worldwide totals 60 people and is 11% higher than this time last year. All, but one, are being held in three Middle Eastern countries — Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They include six foreign journalists.