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Iraqis Reject Regional Media Curbs

Journalists slam Arab League’s adoption of wide-ranging regulations for Middle East media.
Iraqi journalists are warning that a new charter agreed by Arab ministers of information will roll back media freedom in the region.

The non-binding charter was drafted by Egypt and Saudi Arabia and adopted on February 12, following a meeting of the Arab League member states’ ministers of information in Cairo.

Reports suggested that Lebanon and Qatar were the only Arab League members to raise concerns, but the Iraqi government, which did not attend the meeting, said it too opposed the charter. Iraqi media representatives, meanwhile, have slammed the proposed restrictions.

“This charter could have been imposed during the era of Saddam’s regime,” agreed Hashim Hassan, a professor at the College of Media at Baghdad University.

According to the London-based media rights organisation Article 19, the document - Principles for Organising Satellite Radio and TV Broadcasting in the Arab Region - calls on member states to introduce legislation that enforces the curbs and withdraw, freeze or not renew the licences of media that fail to comply.

The charter’s prohibitions include anything that offends regional leaders; damages national unity; and calls into question God, monotheistic religions or sects.

“It takes the Arab media many steps back,” said Saif al-Khayat, bureau chief of the Japanese News Agency in Baghdad.

Ziyad al-Ajely, head of Baghdad-based press freedoms watchdog the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said the document had been signed by “authoritarian” Arab regimes, who are afraid of losing their power.

He said that Iraq was in a different situation to other counties in the region because it “has a constitution that guarantees freedom of the press”.

“We are in a country that tries to give more freedom,” said Ajely. “We are not an authoritarian country any more.”

Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003,

the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority dissolved Iraq’s information ministry, which had served as the regime’s propaganda mouthpiece.

“We have freed the media,” said Jabir al-Jabari, a senior official at the Iraqi ministry of culture. “So how would we go back and impose restrictions?

“There is no democratic government that is ready to sign a document that restricts freedom.”

While the Iraqi constitution allows more media freedom than other Arab nations, it has however also found ways to ban broadcast media. The interior ministry last year closed the offices of Al-Sharqiya, one of the most popular stations in Iraq, saying it incited sectarianism. Al-Jazeera is also prohibited from working in Iraq.

Some are concerned that even if Iraq and others reject the charter, they will be affected.

For instance, if Cairo decides that a programme produced by Nile Sat - a major satellite station based in Egypt that broadcasts throughout the Middle East - violates the charter, millions of the viewers around the region could be affected, said Khayat.

Media rights organisations such as Article 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists have called on Arab governments to reject the charter.

“This is an unacceptable move on the part of autocratic governments to rob viewers of the already small amount of broadcast freedom they have enjoyed on private television,” said Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, in a statement.

However, not all Iraqi journalists are opposed to the document. Journalist Assifa Mussa, who did not want her news organisation named, said, “We need to impose restrictions on the media to help improve the security situation.”

Mussa said if broadcast news organisations are regulated, they will be less provocative. That could save the lives of journalists who have been widely targeted in Iraq, she said.

In particular, she supports the provision that prohibits broadcasts criticising religious sects, saying such reports “have caused the death of thousands of Iraqis”.

Bassim al-Shara’ is an IWPR journalist in Baghdad.

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