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

Iraqi Media Complain of Tightening Curbs

Many journalists are calling for new laws to protect them and allow freer access to information.
By Abeer Mohammed
  • Journalists say the authorities often use security concerns as a pretext for stopping them doing their work and keeping a close watch on their activities. (Photo: Kamaran Najm/Metrography)
    Journalists say the authorities often use security concerns as a pretext for stopping them doing their work and keeping a close watch on their activities. (Photo: Kamaran Najm/Metrography)

Journalists in Iraq are calling for new laws to ensure their rights are protected, amid concerns that the government is increasingly acting to limit freedom of expression.

Despite the emergence of a free press in Iraq following the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, the media has frequently been the target of al-Qaeda and Shia militias, making Iraq one of the most dangerous places on earth for journalists.

But eight years on, journalists say they feel the government – rather than violent extremists – are the biggest threat to their profession.

"The government now has the power to prevent journalists from getting information and also restrict their movement and activity. The government is able now to sue journalists in local courts further limiting their freedom,” said Hadi Jalo Marei, executive director of the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, JFO, a Baghdad-based media rights watchdog and an IWPR partner.

"As the government becomes stronger, it will be more able to prevent journalists from reaching the information they need. In Iraq, a stronger government means less availability of information and that means journalists become weaker when facing the government."

Marei is one of many media experts calling for new laws to protect journalists and allow freer access to information, as the Iraqi press corps warns that the government’s grip is tightening.

“Local media face more restrictions day by day. I cannot shoot any footage in Baghdad, even a garden, without permission from the security forces,” said Rahman Ali, 34, a freelance cameraman whose name has been changed at his request.

According to Ali and others, the authorities will often use security concerns as a pretext for stopping journalists from doing their work and keeping a close watch on their activities. Photographers and video journalists who spoke to IWPR said they must receive official permission to work, and are often forced to accept troops as escorts even for relatively safe locations.

“How can I report whatever fact I want, when the government’s eyes and ears are surrounding me? The government does not like all the facts to be revealed,” Ali said.

Ali al-Mosawi, head of the National Media Centre, which is attached to the council of ministers, and a media advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, denied any suggestion that the government is restricting media freedom in Iraq.

“The opening up of press freedom after 2003 led to a chaotic situation,” Mosawi said. “Media outlets started up all over the place. But I think the situation has settled down and will become more organised day by day without any [government] interference.”

Since 2003, however, the government has been criticised for closing media operations for alleged violations. The most notable recent example was when the Cairo-based television news channel Al-Baghdadiya closed down its bureaus in the country on the orders of Maliki, after featuring the demands of militants that held hostages during the bloody siege of a church in Baghdad on October 31.

“Given the persistent desire of the prime minister to prevent Al-Baghdadiya from working in Iraq, the management of the channel has decided to close its bureaus in the country,” a statement from the company read.

“We are sorry to have had to take this decision, but we believe that efforts to block the people from expressing their views and daily suffering will not stop Al-Baghdadiya from fighting for freedom of the press, the investigation of corruption and freedom of opinion.”

A former correspondent of Al- Baghdadiya who now works with Al-Ettijah TV said the government has created an atmosphere of fear for journalists.

"I felt that I could be arrested by the government forces at any time, on any pretence, for no reason, just because we say something that the government might not like,” said Ali Mateer, 31, whose real name has been withheld at his request.

“More than one time, I’ve received veiled threats from government officials. Once one asked me, ‘Don’t you have a family? You should pay attention to your work for their sake.’"

Media and journalism professor Kadim al-Meqdadia sees the reported restrictions on the media as a direct threat to Iraq’s fledgling democracy and free press.

“Without free media there will be no democracy in Iraq and it is impossible to have free local media with such restrictions,” he said. “We hope the new government will empower the media to assist the nation-building process.

“This will help develop democracy in the country, and in the end this will benefit the people as well as the government itself.”

For this to happen, the JFO’s Marei said legislation was needed to support transparency, grant access to information and protect the rights of journalists. He added that the JFO has sponsored laws that are now waiting for ratification in parliament that will help reporters conduct investigative work, especially on corruption cases.

Still, he noted the glacial pace of Iraqi lawmaking and that Iraqi officials themselves need to be educated on journalistic law and ethics.

For now, journalists like Imaeil Ali, 41, a well-known writer affiliated with several Baghdad newspapers, are left to wonder about the future of the Iraqi press.

“Yes, we need a law to guarantee our rights; we need a law to protect us. Until we get that I am pessimistic about the future of media in Iraq,” Ali said.

“I challenge any foreign reporter to come and work in Iraq, and let's see if he will leave with much more pessimism than me.”

Abeer Mohammed is an IWPR editor in Baghdad.