Freedom of the Press
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Iraq continued to be the most dangerous place in the world for the press in 2007, with several dozen journalists and media workers killed during the year. The two greatest challenges to press freedom remained the ongoing security issues and the restrictions on investigating corruption and abuses of power. Both freedom of opinion and freedom of the press are guaranteed in Article 36 of the 2005 constitution, provided these rights are exercised “in a way that does not violate public order or morality.” The constitution also outlines a legal framework for the creation of an independent National Communications and Media Commission to regulate broadcast media. However, Iraqi laws restrict the press and allow for fines and imprisonment of up to seven years for anyone who insults the parliament, the government, or public authorities. The media are also prohibited from supporting the Ba’ath Party, inciting violence or civil disorder, or calling for a change in Iraq’s borders through violent means. In addition, a number of restrictive laws dating from Saddam Hussein’s rule remain on the books, and some emergency orders from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) period are still in effect. The press may also still be prosecuted under the 1969 penal code, which criminalizes libel, defamation, the disclosure of state secrets, and the spreading of “false news.” Several amendments to laws governing the press have been circulated, and the constitution itself is still being revised, which may or may not improve legal protections for the press.
The parliament of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) approved a new press bill in December that had been drafted in cooperation with the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate. The draft is rather restrictive, however, and proposes fines of up to 10 million dinars (US$8,200) for various vaguely worded offenses such as disturbing security, spreading fear, and encouraging terrorism. The new law could have a crippling effect on the many journalists already facing a multitude of frivolous libel charges. Owing to pressure from the Kurdish media and watchdog groups like the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, KRG president Masoud Barzani refused to sign the law and returned it for revision to the KRG parliament.
While the number of arrests and detentions of journalists by Iraqi security forces and U.S. forces declined considerably in 2007, the Iraqi authorities employed other forms of legal harassment of the media. The government maintained its policy of curbing broadcasters using CPA Order 14, which prohibits the media from “inciting violence.” The local offices of Sunni television channels Al-Zaura and Salah al-Din as well as the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Sharqiya were closed down in late 2006 and early 2007 for airing footage of Iraqis protesting Saddam Hussein’s execution. The stations continued to air on satellite channels hosted outside the country. The Iraqi offices of Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera remained closed after being shut down by the government in 2004. Citing security reasons, the government placed restrictions on reporting on bomb attack sites in May, and starting in November, journalists were forbidden to go to the Kandil Mountains to cover hostilities between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Turkish forces. Eleven employees of Wasan Media were arrested on February 25 and charged with inciting terror for sharing video footage with Al-Jazeera of an interview with a woman who was allegedly raped by police. While all charges were dropped, two of the media workers remained in jail at the end of the year on charges of possessing unlicensed weapons. Harassment and intimidation of independent journalists has also increased in the Kurdistan region in recent years, with several editors of independent publications such as the Hawlati being jailed and resigning from their posts over threats of imprisonment for publishing articles that are critical of the KRG.
The case of Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who had been held by the U.S. military without charge for 20 months, finally came before an Iraqi court in December. The hearings were held in secrecy, and Hussein was never formally charged. U.S. officials have claimed that he had been working with insurgent groups who had given him privileged access to their attacks, but the Associated Press was able to discredit some of these claims. Hussein remained in detention at the end of the year. All other journalists detained by U.S. forces have been released, most without being formally charged.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 32 journalists and 12 media support staff were killed in 2007. All journalists killed were Iraqi nationals, with the exception of one Russian photographer working for the U.S. network CBS. Although some journalists are caught in the crossfire, most are victims of deliberately targeted attacks by insurgent groups and militias that often go unpunished. Insurgent groups have been known to issue “death lists” of journalists. On June 7, female reporter Sahar Hussein Ali al-Haydari was singled out and killed by four gunmen associated with the Qaeda-affiliated group the Islamic State of Iraq. Al-Haydari worked for the National Iraqi News Agency and the independent news agency Aswat al-Iraq. An American air strike killed a Reuters photographer and his assistant on July 12 along with nine other Iraqis. Reuters called for an investigation into the air strike, which eyewitnesses claimed was carried out indiscriminately. The CPJ criticized a Pentagon investigation report on the 2004 killing of two employees of the Al-Arabiya satellite television channel by U.S. troops. U.S. forces have been responsible for the deaths of at least 16 journalists since 2003.
According to Reporters Sans Frontieres, armed groups kidnapped 25 media workers in 2007, and although most were quickly freed, 5 of those kidnapped were killed. Kidnappers still held 14 Iraqi journalists at the end of the year, including 5 who were kidnapped in 2006. On April 3, gunmen seized Othman al-Mashhadani, a reporter for the Saudi Arabian daily Al-Watan who had reported on various sectarian militias, including the Mahdi Army, a Shiite group, and the Islamic Army, a Sunni group. The kidnappers called his family and asked for a ransom, but his body, which showed signs of torture, was found three days later. Many kidnappings target local journalists working for foreign media as correspondents or stringers. Most journalists practice a high level of self-censorship in response to the extralegal intimidation and violence, as well as the threat and implementation of restrictive press laws.
The diversity of the media in Iraq increased dramatically after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraq now has more than 100 daily and weekly publications and dozens of private television and radio channels. Nevertheless, the financial viability of these outlets is severely threatened by the security situation, and many publications have very small circulations. Nearly all media outlets are privately owned and operated; many are financially dependent on or affiliated with ethnic, sectarian, or partisan groups,. In conjunction with poor training for journalists, the media environment reflects a plurality of viewpoints but a lack of balanced journalism. Traditional, independent journalism is spearheaded by successful publications such as Assabah Aljadeed and Hawlati and news agencies such as Aswat al-Iraq. Media infrastructure has improved with information and communication technologies and new printing presses in Baghdad and Basra. The government-controlled Iraqi Media Network includes Al-Iraqiya television, the Al-Sabah newspaper, and radio stations throughout the country. Among the largest domestic television stations is Al-Sharqiya, which broadcasts from Dubai and features news, soap operas, and satire. The popularity of foreign satellite television, previously banned under Saddam Hussein except in the northern Kurdish regions where it was legalized in 1991, has increased immensely since the 2003 invasion. Around one-third of all Iraqi families now own satellite dishes.
Internet use was severely limited during the Saddam Hussein era, but many internet cafés have opened up since 2003. There are no direct government restrictions on internet access, but owing to the security situation, power failures, and lack of infrastructure, the number of private internet users remains small even by regional standards.