ARBIL – The working environment for Iraq’s journalists is becoming increasingly dangerous and difficult, with 31 killed since the start of this year, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
The dire situation has prompted both international and local media groups to design a new "safety strategy" involving the creation of special offices charged with protecting journalists in the face of "kidnappings, targeted killings, and other threats to media." These offices will be set up in Baghdad and Arbil, and government and well as media outlets will have representatives there.
Since the U.S. invasion in March 2003, at least 204 journalists have been killed in the country, a figure that surpasses the media death toll in any other war zone in history, IFJ reports.
"It is wrong to be complacent about the media situation [in Iraq]," Aiden White, the secretary general of IFJ, told IPS on the sidelines of a May 10-11 safety strategy conference in Arbil that was organized by IFJ and two affiliated Iraqi and Kurdistan journalists’ syndicates.
"The first concern is, of course, the physical safety of journalists," he said. "But the discussion that follows is creating the right environment for journalists in terms of eliminating legal and political pressures."
The IFJ, which represents some 500,000 members in more than 100 countries, has complained to U.S. authorities in Iraq about their failure to provide protection for journalists, with few results.
"We are having a very difficult dialogue with the Americans in Iraq with the way they have handled media," White said. He added that so far, 19 of the journalists killed were found to have U.S.-made bullets in their bodies, "but no satisfactory explanation" has been offered as to the circumstances in which they were shot.
Meanwhile, some say that the violence plaguing the country has psychologically affected the Iraqi public’s perception of the news media. Many media outlets in Iraq are affiliated with the country’s divergent sectarian and ethnic groups. That has turned journalists into targets for militias of rival factions.
"People are no longer naturally and normally dealing with journalists," said George Hasado, the chief editor of Bahra newspaper in Baghdad. "They are afraid of cameras and journalists."
Hasado also criticized the lack of a modern press law in Iraq almost four years after the official end of the war, noting that the same law used to deal with journalists during Saddam Hussein’s regime remains in place.
"That old law has severely restricted the freedom of press and as a result, every institution gives itself the right to bring charges against journalists based on their own conclusions," Hasado told IPS.
Several journalists have been sued by officials for stories they published, yet none has been sentenced so far and the cases have been settled behind closed doors, Hasado said.
Similar problems exist in northern Kurdistan, a region that enjoys much better security.
A United Nations report on Iraq’s human rights situation, released last month, protested the "harassment" of journalists by certain government and party officials in Kurdistan.
Sherko Habib, a spokesperson for the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate (KJS), believes that, "The [security] environment in Kurdistan is much more appropriate and there are not the same challenges that prevent journalists from doing their job."
"The major problem here, however, is a lack of understanding between the authorities and journalists," he said.
The UN report notes that several journalists have been detained in the Kurdish region over the past few years on charges of defamation relating to stories they published on official corruption. Others have been arbitrarily detained, the UN says.
On Jan. 26, for example, the security forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan arrested freelance journalist Muhammad Siyasi Ashkanayi, accusing him of spying for Parastin, the intelligence agency of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
At the end of March, he had not been charged with an offense nor referred to an investigative judge, and remained in detention, the UN reported.
A new press law drafted by the KJS to be discussed in the regional parliament would decriminalize media work and prevent journalists from being put behind bars for their reporting.
The IFJ’s general secretary hailed the draft law, saying once approved, it would be one of the two most progressive media laws along with that of Israel in the Middle East, where "there are many repressive laws." Every country whose rights record is criticized by the UN should be seriously concerned, White said.