Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Dangerous Occupation

Kidnapping, murder and arrest are the price of doing business in the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism.
By Tiare Rath
Press freedom in Iraq is crippled by a surge in violence directed at the media, according to Iraqi journalists.

Members of the press face intimidation, kidnapping, assassination and harassment on a daily basis, particularly in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul. In the relatively secure Kurdish areas, journalists are complaining about an increase in arrests and a new law that curbs press freedoms.

Organisations promoting freedom of the press say Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Statistics from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists indicate the conflict is the deadliest for members of the media since the early 1980s.

Sixty-eight reporters and 24 media support workers have been killed since March 2003. Forty nine of those were Iraqi. Eight have died this year, including IWPR trainee Kamal Manahi Anbar who was killed on March 26.

"Crossfire…car bombings…abductions….murders together make [Iraq] an almost prohibitively dangerously environment for journalists," said Joel Campagna, CPJ Middle East programme coordinator.

The media scene in Iraq is expanding, with over 100 publications in Baghdad alone, but the violence often overshadows the strides made since Saddam Hussein's reign and has left journalism in a "very, very deep crisis", according to Ismael Zayer, editor-in-chief of the independent daily newspaper al-Sabah al-Jadeed [The New Morning].

"In most of the cases we can't say what we know. We're afraid that if we publish what we know we'll be threatened," said Zayer. "Of course you can write a beautiful, brilliant piece, but it might be the last piece you write."

Zayer, who survived a kidnapping attempt in 2004 during which his bodyguard and driver were killed, fled Iraq a month ago after receiving a threat that he would be assassinated by a religious militia that he did not want to name. He said he was told his name has been taken off a "hit list" and plans to return to Baghdad.

Zayer, an Iraqi with Dutch citizenship, said a European conference that he helped plan on the dangers facing Iraqi journalists was recently cancelled because several of the journalists had gone into hiding.

The threats are leading journalists to self-censor their work on issues from corruption to militias, maintained Zayer.

He said at least four of his reporters resigned last month because they fear working in the industry, and one of his senior editors will leave the country after receiving numerous threats against himself and his family. Many of Iraq's top journalists flee to Jordan, he said.

Hussein al-Yaseri, an editor with the US-backed Radio Nawa and a former IWPR trainee, knows of at least three top journalists who have either fled the country recently or plan to leave. He said journalists often hide their professions from friends and neighbours.

"Journalists are targeted because they usually convey the truth," said Hussein al-Yaseri.

Yaseri maintained that politicians generally respect press freedom, even though there is not an official press law, and do not try to influence media outlets. But Zayer said it was difficult for journalists from independent news organisations to access documents and official government sources.

The journalists said it is important that the government take a stronger stance against the killing of media workers.

"We need a serious stand where people know [if they] kill journalists, they will never escape," Zayer said.

Reporters in northern Iraq are less concerned about violence but have noticed a rise in arrests and harassment of their colleagues. Many have also expressed concern about a press law that is expected to go before the Kurdish parliament in early May.

Asos Hardi, editor-in-chief of the new independent Kurdish newspaper Awene, said in the north there is "a margin of freedom of speech".

"When there is no legally protected freedom of speech, it depends on the will of the politicians," he said.

While party-run outlets are prevalent in all of Iraq, they are particularly strong in the north where the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party dominate the media and government.

The Kurdistan Journalists' Syndicate is the leading organisation for media professionals and is run by party-affiliated journalists.

It has worked with journalists and legal experts to propose a controverisal press law which contains clauses that prohibit publishing any content that is "against public customs", "instigates violence or terrorism", might harm the "grand interests of the region" or infringes on or defames religious groups.

The law was proposed three months ago, and the syndicate received complaints from "provocative journalists" who "talked about it as if it was the end of the world", said Fared Zamdar, head of the syndicate in the eastern city of Sulaimaniyah and an editor with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's media operations.

He added the syndicate has expanded the law to include electronic and broadcast media.

"To me, there is no absolute freedom," said Zamdar. "There aren't just rights, there are duties."

Another clause in the law says that journalists cannot publish any regional military secrets or details from defence-related meetings. It also precludes journalists from access to confidential information or information that may endanger security.

"That's the problem," said Hardi. "Who decides which case is related to national security? What is the definition of national security?"

The law is moving toward parliament as arrests of journalists begin to rise.

Hardi, former editor of the independent newspaper Hawlati, and Hawlati editor-in-chief, Twana Osman, were convicted on May 2 of publishing incorrect information. Sulaimaniyah prime minister Omar Fatah sued the journalists for a Hawlati article that claimed Fatah had fired two civil servants for cutting his phone line because he hadn't paid the bill.

Hardi and Osman were sentenced to six months in jail, but the judge commuted the sentence and fined them 75,000 dinar (about 50 US dollars) each.

Kamal Sayid Qadir was sentenced to 30 years after writing an inflammatory and critical article against Kurdistan regional president Masood Barzani. Under pressure from international and local journalism organisations, his sentence was later reduced to 18 months and then further commuted.

"You can't say you support a free press and support a democracy when you throw journalists in prison," said Campagna.

Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan have complained that security forces seized their cameras and notebooks and sometimes harassed or beat them during demonstrations. Some have been briefly detained. After a riot broke out in Halabja in March, the journalists' syndicate called on reporters to turn over their materials to help the authorities arrest demonstrators.

Hawez Hawezi, who writes for Hawlati, will be tried for defamation for an opinion piece he wrote calling for Iraqi Kurds to leave the region because of poor leadership. He called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party pharaohs.

"Many times the provocative journalists have caused us problems," said Zamdar.

During the interview with IWPR, he received a call from a journalist who was being sued for libel. Zamdar noted that the syndicate has to find attorneys for its members, even if they do not agree with what the journalists write.

A security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the arrests of journalists are rising, with their number dependent on the mood of government and party officials. Often, he continued, detentions are made without a judge's warrant,

"Officials are arresting journalists as they please without being questioned."

Tiare Rath is editor of the Iraqi Crisis Report. IWPR trainee journalists Zaineb Naji and Amanj Khalil contributed to this report from Baghadad and Sulaimaniyah respectively.