BAGHDAD – When Ali Sumerian, an editor for Al-Sabah newspaper, and three local media colleagues sat down for a restaurant meal after reporting on a demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 25 this year, security forces detained them. "We were accused of encouraging an anti-political process," says Sumerian. It was only after their arrest triggered a media outcry, he says, were they released 12 hours later. The four were just some of the journalists attacked and arrested that day.
Two days later more than 20 Iraqi reporters announced that they would boycott the offices of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Baghdad’s military command to protest the violence against media covering demonstrations. Al-Maliki and the Baghdad military chief apologized.
Mirroring the wave of demonstrations sweeping the Middle East, Iraqi civil society groups and citizens have congregated in Tahrir Square in Baghdad – and in cities across the country – every Friday since February for non-violent protests against the shattered infrastructure, government corruption, soaring unemployment and lack of civil rights. A continuous crackdown by the state security apparatus has forcefully tamped down the weekly crowd, curbed their right to free speech, and in the media’s case, the ability to do their job.
This August, the Iraqi parliament passed a Journalist Protection law, which the chief driver of the legislation, the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate – with an estimated 15,000 members – proclaims a milestone victory for reporters’ rights in Iraq. However, media and free speech advocates like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Article 19 and the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) are united in their objection to the law’s vague language, and the threat it poses to those it is meant to protect.
New York-based CPJ has ranked Iraq the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist for its fourth straight year. The organization’s Impunity Index calculates the number of journalists killed in ratio to the national population, explains researcher Mohamed Abdel Dayem. "Then we look into how many cases there was a serious effort by the authorities to prosecute the killers," he says. "In Iraq, there are zero such instances."
Iraq’s journalists under Saddam Hussein operated under draconian state media controls. But after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the risk of reporting from a conflict zone under international military forces and sectarian militias remained deadly.
"When the central government had no grip of power in the country, you saw assassinations, roadside bombs, and other random violence take a heavy toll on journalists," says Dayem.
"As the central government solidified control, you see the problems facing journalists starting to mirror some of Iraq’s neighbors like Syria and Jordan or some other authoritarian state. They don’t have much of an appetite for independent journalism, and use violence, threats and politicized judiciaries to intimidate and shut them up."
Upstairs in a crowded café along historic Mutanabbi Street, famed as a center for Baghdad’s booksellers and literary crowd, a group of local journalists, bloggers, and academics debate the merits of the new Journalist Protection law, and explore how to amend it.
Primary concerns include the law’s narrow definition of a journalist as a full-time, registered media worker; and with vague articles that state a journalist’s work cannot be hindered, or media questioned or arrested, if they work in accordance with "the law". Finally, it states that the Journalists’ Syndicate will protect journalists if they find themselves in a court of law.
Hadi Jalu helps run the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an independent media watchdog that had its offices ransacked by Iraqi intelligence officials in February. Although a member of the Syndicate, Jalu is critical of the new law.
"It is hard to define, so when you come in conflict with a policeman, they could interpret it in a way that suits them… So if I’m a policeman in the street and a journalist comes and take photos, the policeman could arrest him and take his equipment. Who decides that? Which law? There are no mechanisms, this law is full of landmines."
"’The law’ in this case, means all laws," says CPJ’s Mohamed Abdel Dayem, who cites the existing powers of the 1968 Penal Code, which can try a journalist in criminal, rather than civil court. "And if they are not in the Syndicate, too bad for the journalist," he adds. "What if they don’t want to join?"
Muaid al-Lami presides over the bustling Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate, filled on a sleepy afternoon with Iraqi reporters waiting to register and pay fees. A survivor of two assassination attempts, al-Lami took over from the last Syndicate head who was killed. He estimates about 100 professional journalists are not registered with the Syndicate, but says he would defend them if they were in trouble regardless, classifying them as a "humanitarian cases".
"A lot of people participated in drafting the Journalist Protection law," al-Lami says. "We listened to their remarks, until we came up with a very mature draft. However, when we sent it to parliament again, because of politics it didn’t pass. So some of the articles were passed which we were not very happy with, but we accepted with some bitterness in our mouth."
Al-Lami adds, "I am forced to demand a special law for journalists. I cannot wait 100 years to achieve mass justice for the people… This is a real first step."
Access to information draft legislation is still pending in parliament, along with laws to regulate the Internet and freedom of association and expression. New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Samer Muscati warns about the shortcomings of these upcoming draft laws.
"You cannot look at the Journalist Protection law on its own, but in a combination with all the other laws that are pending. Down the road we will have all this other legislation that will affect journalists, that people are not focusing on, and that is concerning to us."
(Inter Press Service)