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Two pillars of Iraqi press freedom established by IWPR and its trainees have joined forces in a bid to strengthen the breadth and impact of the two organisations.
The Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedom Observatory, JFO, an IWPR partner, and Metro Centre to Defend Journalists, which IWPR Iraq created in Sulaimaniyah in 2009, merged and elected a board of directors at a conference in Erbil in July.
The merged organisation will be known as the JFO, but the Metro Centre will retain a high degree of autonomy.
Both organisations are well respected in Iraq as influential, independent watchdogs that defend the rights of Iraqi journalists and campaign for greater press freedom.
The JFO, which was founded by IWPR staff and trainees in 2004, is considered Iraq’s foremost press freedom advocacy group.
The organisation has tracked hundreds of cases of attacks against press and assisted threatened journalists in Iraq, which the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists considers the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.
The JFO’s accomplishments include lobbying the Iraqi government to protect reporters, organising demonstrations calling for greater media rights, securing news organisations more access to cover events and establishing – together with the interior ministry - a hotline for media workers under threat.
The Metro Centre has served as a leading campaigner for press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan, including assisting members of the media who have been detained or threatened, documenting threats against journalists and issuing dozens of statements that have raised awareness of media rights violations in the region.
The merger will strengthen the breadth and impact of the two organisations, which launched joint campaigns through IWPR to push for greater press freedoms earlier this year.
“The step of unifying the two organisations – JFO and Metro Centre - is essential to enhancing the impact of our work to protect journalists and their legal rights,” said Ali Marzook, a JFO board member and manager of IWPR Iraq’s Safety, Security, Law and Protection programme for journalists.
“While JFO has proven itself as an effective organisation for journalists’ issues, its connection to IWPR has given it even more credibility because of the great reputation that IWPR enjoys among journalists.”
The merger was decided during an IWPR-sponsored conference of 35 journalists and media rights advocates from across Iraq in the northern city of Erbil on July 18 and 19.
Conference participants discussed the future of the new organisation and elected an 11-member board of directors which will supervise the policies, direction and budget of the JFO. Metro Centre will serve as a Kurdish subsidiary of the JFO and will keep its current name.
The board’s members are “very diverse and experienced in the field of journalism”, said Metro Centre director and JFO board vice-chairman Mariwan Hama-Saeed.
The organisations’ immediate goals include pressing for laws that protect freedom of speech and media rights to replace restrictive Baath-era legislation that leave journalists vulnerable to prosecution and even the death penalty.
The JFO also hopes to provide financial assistance for journalists in distress and for the families of those who have been killed. In addition, the organisation is aiming to arrange ethics, hostile environment and media law training sessions for journalists and lawyers.
JFO executive director Ziyad al-Ajili said the organisation is also considering expanding its operations to other countries in the region where press freedoms are under threat, although the focus for now remains on Iraq.
“For the past seven years Iraq has been the most dangerous place for journalists to work. Iraqi journalists have been on front lines, risking their lives to cover the news,” said Hama-Saeed. “We will not rest until Iraq becomes a safe haven for journalists and a model for free press in the region.”
Farah Ali is IWPR Iraq’s editorial coordinator and translator in Baghdad.
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