Proposed Press Law Too Limited

Legislation de-criminalises libel but imposes a range of reporting restrictions.

Proposed Press Law Too Limited

Legislation de-criminalises libel but imposes a range of reporting restrictions.

While many independent journalists are backing a draft media law that would boost press freedom in northern Iraq, many say it does not go far enough.

Although leading media figures are supporting the proposed legislation, which would replace draconian Ba’ath-era Iraqi penal codes that criminalise libel, most say it will have a limited impact on press freedom.

"If parliament passes the press bill, Kurdish journalism will begin a new phase marked by growing press freedom," said Saman Fawzi, a media law professor at the University of Sulaimaniyah.

Despite public and official opposition to Ba’athist-era laws since Saddam was overthrown in 2003, Iraqi officials and judges still employ penal codes from this period to punish journalists - under which they can be sent to prison for “insulting” certain parties, including officials, civil servants and foreign countries.

Over the last few years, independent Iraqi Kurdish journalists have faced dozens of lawsuits - primarily from Kurdish officials - and say the Ba’athist laws are one of the biggest hurdles to press freedom in this autonomous region of Iraq.

The proposed law would not only prohibit jail sentences for journalists but would also do away with the need for government permission to launch new media - although it would require publications to register with the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate, a professional association.

The draft took months to finalise because of long-standing tensions between the syndicate, which is loyal to Kurdish authorities, and independent Kurdish journalists who say their freedoms have been restricted in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The original version included prison sentences for reporters and other restrictions, but journalists pushed to have these removed during a consultation phase.

The final draft, which has been sent to the Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly for consideration, is one of the most progressive media laws in the Middle East, said the syndicate.

The ministry of culture also reportedly drafted a law earlier this year that would ban the imprisonment of journalists, but its status is unknown. The ministry did not return calls requesting comment.

While many independent newspapers, including Hawlati and Awene, the two most influential publications in Kurdistan, have endorsed the media bill, editors say the draft law does not go far enough in increasing press freedom.

They are concerned about certain elements in the draft, including a clause which would make it illegal for journalists to publish news the authorities believe may incite violence or terrorism. Another section prohibits publishing stories that are critical of public customs, harm the interests of the region or infringe the rights of religious groups.

News organisations would be fined up to two million Iraqi dinars, or around 1,300 US dollars, for these offences, and would also face financial penalties for republishing stories from the international media deemed to breach the aforementioned conditions.

Shwan Mohammad, deputy editor-in-chief of Awene, said that while his newspaper endorsed the draft that “doesn't mean it is perfect”.

Awene is opposed to the parts of the bill that prohibit publishing on certain topics, he said.

Twana Osman, an editor at Hawlati, shares these concerns. "This press law provides the minimum of freedom. At least it’s better than the Ba’ath regime's law,” he said.

"We have expressed our concerns about the articles that prohibit publishing [on certain subjects] and we hope to amend them in future.”

Journalists are concerned that even if the draft is passed, it will still be possible to imprison journalists under the region’s anti-terrorism law. This states that anyone who intentionally publishes or broadcasts news or statements that create fear or intimidation, or threatens the government, can face up to 15 years in prison.

There have been dozens of cases of Kurdish security forces briefly detaining journalists over the past three years, which has led to mistrust between journalists and the government.

The most notorious detention was in December 2005, when Kurdish-Austrian writer Kamal Sayid Qadir was sentenced to 30 years for “endangering national security” after he published online articles that criticised Kurdistan Regional Government President Masood Barzani and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Qadir’s sentence was reduced and he was released in January 2006.

While Barzani pledged last year not to prosecute writers who criticised him, the troubled relationship between the government and independent journalists continues.

Asayeesh, the Kurdish security forces, announced recently that Hawlati would be charged under the anti-terrorism law with intimidating the public, after it published a report last month that al-Qaeda militants were becoming active in the region.

Halo Abubakir, an undergraduate student of journalism at the University of Sulaimaniyah, said that the new press law, as it stands, would not compel the Kurdish authorities and the dominant parties to respect journalists.

"The power of the parties is often greater than laws," he said. "If they want to arrest and punish a journalist, they’ll find something to charge him with."

Frman Abdul-Rahman is an IWPR correspondent in Sulaimaniyah.

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