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Iraqi Press Get to Grips With Libel

Scores attend series of IWPR training sessions on media law and journalists’ rights.
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IWPR has trained nearly 240 reporters, editors and media lawyers in Iraq’s press laws, enabling members of the country’s press corps to better protect themselves against libel and defamation lawsuits.


Media law specialists working for IWPR Iraq held training sessions on the subject in Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah from June to November 2009. The legal protection courses helped students understand Iraq’s media laws – a first for many who said they had little awareness of crucial issues such as libel and journalists’ rights under the law prior to the IWPR events.


“This was my first training, and it was quite different than the journalism courses I studied [at university] because we received more concrete information,” said Bassam Shibil Khatter, a reporter with Sada newspaper in Wasit, central Iraq.


“I used to face legal trouble, especially when I interviewed officials and asked them critical questions. Now, I’m aware of my rights and I’m more confident about what I should say and do while conducting interviews.


“The course made us aware of our rights and limitations as journalists,” agreed Sherooq al-Jibouri, a producer and presenter with Salahadeen News Channel. “It also gave us the opportunity to network and discuss issues with other journalists.”


IWPR Iraq’s courses in Baghdad focused on training students in Iraqi media laws, which have been carried over from the Baathist regime. Many of the more repression sanctions are no longer applied, but journalists continue to face a plethora of libel and defamation lawsuits.


Journalists tried under Iraqi libel and defamation laws can face jail time if convicted.


“Most of the journalists were completely ignorant of media laws,” prior to the training sessions, said Ali Marzook, project manager for IWPR Iraq’s Journalism Safety, Security, Law and Protection division, which is based in Baghdad. “They’ve learned how to avoid libel and defamation, how to work within the boundaries of the law and how to protect themselves.”


Journalists “are really hungry for these courses”, Marzook added.


Over 160 students were trained in media laws in Baghdad. The courses were led by Hasan Shaaban, a prominent human rights and media lawyer.


Jibouri said since attending the course, he has consulted Shaaban on potential defamation issues in his reporting. He praised IWPR for “providing us not only with information, but also advice and protection”.


Iraqi Kurdistan has a separate press law that was passed by the region’s parliament last year. The law eased punishments and restrictions on journalists, removing custodial sentences.


But reporters and editors in Iraqi Kurdistan continue to find themselves in court because they are not aware of legal statues, said Razaw Ahmed, an IWPR lawyer who organised courses on Iraqi Kurdistan’s press laws in Sulaimaniyah for more than 75 journalists and lawyers.


News organisations and media workers are primarily taken to court on libel and defamation charges, Ahmed said.


The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, reported that more than 50 lawsuits had been filed against journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan between January and May 2009.


CPJ and the Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedom Observatory, an IWPR partner, also wrote a letter to Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki earlier this year expressing concern that journalists were being physically assaulted and that “high-ranking government officials have used lawsuits as a political tool to obstruct and silence the news media”.


Media law experts say many journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan are not well-versed on the new press law, which prohibits articles that “create instability,.t spread fear and intimidation and cause harm to people” or “violate religious beliefs”.


The law also includes a privacy clause that restricts reporting on private individuals, leaving journalists open to libel claims by former officials.


Saman Fawzi, who holds a PhD in media law from Sulaimaniyah University, led the courses for journalists and lawyers in Sulaimaniyah. As few Iraqi attorneys specialise in media law, IWPR also trained lawyers to advise and defend journalists.


“I learned a lot. Now I can test my knowledge and put the lessons into practice, like how to deal with court cases and writing news on officials,” said Dana Muhammed, a reporter with Hawlati, an independent newspaper in Sulaimaniyah.


Relations are strained between Iraqi security officials and journalists, who frequently complain that security forces crack down on the news media. In Iraqi Kurdistan, tensions have been rising between independent journalists and security officials for years.


In an effort to ease hostilities between the two, IWPR invited Hakim Qadir, the head of security for Sulaimaniyah province, to one of the training sessions.


Journalists and Qadir discussed their issues “in a democratic way”, Ahmed said, “and in the end they decided to increase cooperation”.


Ahmed said journalists who attended the IWPR events will not only benefit from understanding media laws, but also practice higher standards of journalism by thoroughly investigating stories. Stronger reporting and legal awareness will ultimately help keep reporters and editors out of court, she said.


IWPR Iraq editorial coordinator Farah Ali and local editor Hemin Lihony contributed to this report from Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah.


For more information, please contact IWPR Managing Editor Yigal Chazan, yigal@iwpr.net


ABOUT IWPR




IWPR undertakes capacity-building programmes in more than two dozen areas of crisis and conflict around the world. Established in 1993, its work focuses on training, reporting and institution-building. This includes establishing independent local media; training local reporters, editors and producers in basic and specialist skills; supporting extensive in-depth reporting on human rights, good governance and related issues; disseminating fact-based reporting in developing countries and internationally; and strengthening communications capacity of local human rights, women’s and grassroots organisations.