ARBIL – After an estimated 10 percent of active journalists in Iraq died in 2006, the rest are asking themselves what lies ahead for them in the New Year.
A report released by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB, also known as Reporters sans Frontieres), on the last day of 2006 described Iraq as “the world’s most dangerous country for the media.” The group said it had called upon Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to put a stop to “hostile accidents” against journalists.
The RWB says 64 journalists and media assistants were killed in Iraq during 2006, “more than twice the number in the 20-year Vietnam war.” Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 139 journalists have been killed in Iraq, 90 percent of them Iraqis, RWB says.
The survey says what journalists in Iraq know too well.
“The security situation in Baghdad and other insecure parts of the country made journalists suffer heavily, and be victimized in the worst possible form in the conflict in 2006,” Hamid Mohammed Ali, member of the administrative council of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate (KJS), told IPS. The KJF is one of the two press unions in Iraq, with the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, that are recognized by the International Federation of Journalists.
“Since journalists are doing field work in covering events, they face serious problems and are regularly targeted,” he added.
“The point is that every group wants to shut the voice of journalists to prevent the deteriorated situation of Iraq from being shown worldwide,” Afif Sarhan, a Lebanese-Brazilian journalist working in Baghdad, told IPS in an e-mail interview.
“Today, the word ‘journalist’ means coming death. Hundreds of journalists have been targeted, kidnapped, or killed for their stories.”
All conflicting parties in Iraq today, from militias to insurgents to the government and U.S. forces are blamed for targeting journalists, imprisoning them, or detaining them for interrogation.
But security is not the only problem. The media also suffers from a legal vacuum caused by the lack of a law that could regulate journalistic activities.
The harsh press laws of Saddam Hussein’s regime were abolished after his government collapsed, but no law has been created to fill the gap. As a result, many complain of confusion over rights, duties, and work limits as journalists.
In the country’s northern Kurdistan region, the KJS has drafted a new press law. Although the proposed law has been criticized by many journalists as curbing press freedom, the KJS officials take pride in calling it “the most progressive press law in the entire Middle East region.”
“The new press law in Kurdistan prohibits the government from imprisoning journalists, and the highest punishment for a journalist would be fining him,” said Hamid Mohammed Ali from KJS.
According to the draft law, journalists will not need government authorization to publish newspapers, and only need to be registered with the KJS.
Kurdistan has been spared much of the bloodshed engulfing other parts of the country, but many journalists still complain that the KJS has failed to protect their rights in the face of harsh treatment by the government.
“I believe if the KJS is there to protect my rights as a journalist and defend me, then they are almost nonexistent, because they mainly represent political parties in the region,” Rahman Gharib, correspondent for the prominent Hawlati Weekly published in Kurdistan, told IPS.
He described 2006 as “a bad history in the relationships between journalists and government in Kurdistan.”
Gharib was once detained for three hours and then beaten on two occasions by local security forces in the course of covering mass demonstrations and strikes that engulfed large parts of Kurdistan in 2006. The demonstrations were held to protest the regional government’s failure to provide basic services.