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Iraqi Journalists Shrug Off Shoe-Thrower Verdict

Most dismiss concerns case would affect press freedom – but are divided over whether jail sentence was fair.
By Zaineb Naji, Abeer Mohammed, Basim al-Shara

Iraqi journalists say they do not regard the decision to imprison a reporter who threw his shoes at President George W Bush as an attack on their profession.



While journalists were divided over whether Muntader al-Zaidi deserved his three-year jail term, most distanced themselves from the reporter and dismissed concerns that his case would affect press freedom.



Zaidi interrupted a press conference by hurling insults and a pair of shoes at Bush during his final visit to Baghdad as president last December. His actions delighted the Arab world but dismayed many Iraqi journalists who felt he had discredited their profession.



The 30-year-old reporter for Baghdadiya TV was tried on charges of assaulting a foreign dignitary, which carries a maximum punishment of 15 years in jail. Last week, he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in a court normally used for terrorism cases.



Some of the Iraqi press corps’ initial scorn for Zaidi seemed to soften as news of his sentence spread. Several journalists told IWPR they sympathised with the reporter and saw his punishment as unduly harsh. Others, however, maintained that he embarrassed the nation and should have expected a firm penalty.



Irrespective of their views on the jailing, most journalists agreed that the verdict against Zaidi could not be construed as an attack on the press. Many argued that he had ceased to be a journalist when he made his extraordinary protest.



“Long live Zaidi’s hand – that’s my opinion as an Iraqi,” said Iman Jafer, a TV reporter for a pro-government channel. “However, as a journalist, I would like to say that his actions were shameful.”



Jafer was shocked by the sentencing. “We expected him to be released or maybe given a one-year jail term – but not three! Even if he made a mistake, he does not deserve such a sentence,” she said.



Kamal Badran, of the Al-Fayha satellite channel, also said Zaidi had lost any professional privileges. He felt the sentence was just. “When the journalist uses methods other than his mouth and his pen, he becomes a normal person with no immunity at all,” Badran said.



Sadiq Jafar, a presenter on Al-Nas Radio, said the sentence was milder than expected. As Zaidi had insulted Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and his guest, Bush, he said, “Should we expect them to offer him roses?”



Media unions and rights groups sought to strike a balance between criticising Zaidi’s actions and voicing alarm at his punishment. Leading journalism advocacy groups in Iraq have appealed to top leaders for his release.



Ziad al-Ajeely, the head of the Journalists’ Freedom Observatory, JFO, in Baghdad, told IWPR, “Zaidi didn't act in a professional way at all – he took advantage of the democratic environment which is still new to the Middle East.”



Nonetheless, he cautioned that the severity of the sentence seemed a throwback to an earlier era.



The JFO and other journalists’ rights groups have in the past warned that Saddam Hussein-era laws – such as the one Zaidi was tried under – threaten press freedom in Iraq.



“We hoped he would get less than three years or even a ‘not guilty’ verdict,” Ajeely said.



Mouyad al-Lami, head of the Iraqi Journalists Union, said the Zaidi case would not affect the perception of journalism in Iraq but voiced concern about the sentencing.



“The president and prime minister need to use their constitutional powers to pardon Zaidi – he is a young man and it is a humanitarian case,” Lami said. He said journalists in particular had suffered a great deal in Iraq and Zaidi may have been acting on this frustration.



Zaidi is believed to have been kidnapped briefly by an armed group some years ago. Despite a recent drop in violence, Iraq remains the world’s deadliest country for journalists.



The international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders, criticised Zaidi but described the prison sentence against him as deeply unfair.



“We obviously regret that Zaidi chose this way to protest against president Bush’s policies but there is no justification for this prison sentence,” the Paris-based rights said in a statement. “The sentence is cynical in a country where so many people who kill journalists are never brought to justice.”



Most journalists interviewed by IWPR said Zaidi’s actions had not led to tighter curbs on their work, though many had expressed this fear immediately after the incident at the press conference in December.



“I will not be fearful of questioning any official, even Bush himself, because I do my job in a professional way,” said Mustafa Ahmed, a radio reporter working for an independent media group. “Zaidi was a bad example of an Iraqi journalist and a worse example of an Iraqi citizen.”



Omar al-Hadithi, a journalist with Al-Sabah News, said Zaidi had carried out an act of “revenge for the Iraqi people against all the crimes Bush has committed”. But he maintained that the sentencing would not impact journalism. “Zaidi got a fair trial,” he said.



However, Ibrahim al-Saraji, the head of the Iraqi press freedom watchdog, the Association to Protect Journalists’ Rights, cautioned that the sentencing had been harsh and hasty.



“There are so many other issues with journalists still pending – so why the rush in the Zaidi case?” he said. “The sentence will make journalists review their relationship with the courts.”



Saraji warned that journalism had become dangerously politicised and reporters had been mocked and harassed after the Zaidi incident.



A cameraman working for the same private TV station as Zaidi said guards at press conferences had begun singling out the channel’s employees for tough treatment.



“The guards treat us badly when they find out we are from Baghdadia TV. They keep searching us and checking our identity cards over and over again,” said the cameraman, who did not give his name because he was not authorised to speak to the press.



Zaineb Naji, Abeer Mohammed and Basim al-Shara are IWPR-trained journalists in Baghdad.

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