Freedom of the Press
Iraq remained one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists in 2010. Increasing government restrictions and the use of lawsuits against media outlets also posed significant challenges to media freedom during the year. While Iraq’s 2005 constitution guarantees freedom of the press, courts continued to rely on the highly restrictive 1969 penal code to prosecute reporters and media outlets on charges including libel and defamation. Moreover, in July, the Supreme Judicial Council announced plans to create a special court to address offenses committed by the media, and the new entity heard its first case in September. Press freedom groups objected to the move, noting that Article 95 of the constitution bans the establishment of special or extraordinary courts. The National Communications and Media Commission (NCMC), meanwhile, forced media organizations to agree to regulations giving it the authority to halt broadcasts, confiscate equipment, and withdraw licenses, among other powers. Orders issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority shortly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion—including Order 14, which bans media incitement to violence—remain in effect. Iraqi law restricts reporters from defaming public officials, and self-censorship is widespread. In April 2010, a municipality in Dhi Qar province filed a lawsuit against a news website that published a citizen’s complaint about poor public services. The Dhi Qar provincial council reportedly shut down a local office of the Cairo-based satellite television station Baghdadiya in February for “promoting the dissolved Baath Party,” and in November the NCMC shut down the Baghdad office of Baghdadiya after it reported terrorist hostage-takers’ demands on the air. At the end of 2009, a group of journalists and academics drafted a law designed to safeguard access to information. In May 2010 they published an open letter urging the Iraqi parliament to pass the freedom of information law, but it was unclear when the legislature might vote on the issue.
Iraq registered the worst performance on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2010 Impunity Index, which ranks countries based on the failure of authorities to arrest or prosecute suspects in the murder of journalists. In the cases of the 92 journalists thought to have been assassinated in Iraq since 2003, the government has not brought a single perpetrator to justice. At least five journalists and three other media workers were killed in 2010. The death toll was slightly higher than in 2009, when four journalists were killed, but far below the 2007 toll, when 34 journalists lost their lives. Sardasht Osman of the independent newspaper Ashtiname was kidnapped and murdered in May. The investigation was described by press watchdog organizations as “cursory.” Officials concluded that Osman had been killed by members of Ansar al-Islam, but the extremist group denied responsibility for the killing. Prior to his murder, Osman had received threatening telephone calls, which began after he published a satirical article about alleged corruption among Kurdish government officials in a Swedish-based newspaper. Following the murder, a court in the autonomous Kurdish region fined the magazine Rega more than $40,000 for publishing a report suggesting that regional security forces were involved in Osman’s death. Two other prominent murders occurred elsewhere in Iraq in September: Al-Iraqiya television anchor Riad al-Saray was gunned down in Baghdad, and the next day Al-Mosuliya television presenter Safa al-Din Abdel Hamid was shot dead in front of his home.
Journalists also faced harassment, faring especially poorly in the run-up to the March 7 national elections. Journalists seen as critical of the government were denied media accreditation,and various reporters were beaten, intimidated, and detained by police and rival political forces. In February, the NCMC issued new regulations prohibiting broadcasters from “inciting violence or sectarianism,” which it said was a crucial problem during election periods. Press freedom organizations criticized the regulations for their vague wording and harsh penalties that included suspension, fines, and the confiscation of equipment. On March 4, security forces in the Kurdish region raided Radio Dang, interrupting programming and confiscating equipment, and police beat two journalists for filming evidence of preelection fraud. Violence continued on election day itself, as independent journalists were blocked from entering voting stations or taking photographs of the premises. In many cases they were beaten, stripped of their equipment, and detained.
The Kurdish region has been a freer place for media than elsewhere in Iraq, particularly following passage of a regional press law in 2008 that prohibits the closure of news outlets and prison terms for press offenses. But journalists argue that their freedoms have been slowly eroding, and that Kurdish authorities still often relied on Iraq’s restrictive 1969 penal code to prosecute journalists. In 2010, the region’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) filed several civil suits against news organizations that had criticized its activities. One lawsuit sought $1 billion for defamation from a newspaper affiliated with the opposition group Gorran, after it published an article alleging that the KDP and its ally, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), had made millions of dollars from illicit oil sales. In July, KDP leader Massoud Barzani accused journalists of taking advantage of the 2008 press law and suggested that the regional parliament should amend it. Journalists in the Kurdish region continued to face physical harassment and intimidation. In Dahuk in February, two journalists were arrested for publishing a poem criticizing Islam. In April, eight others were beaten by police while covering a peaceful student demonstration in Sulaymaniyah. Human rights and press freedom organizations blamed security forces allied with the KDP and PUK for the rise in attacks on journalists.
Elsewhere in Iraq, journalists cited increased restrictions, harassment, and a lack of access to information as impediments to their work. Reporters must receive official permission to cover a story and are often forced to accept military escorts. At least twice in 2010, Iraqi government officials jailed journalists without charge. In April, an elite security unit that reports to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrested Saad al-Aossi, editor of the weekly Al-Shahid in Baghdad, six days after al-Aossi published an opinion piece criticizing al-Maliki for lack of transparency in filling government posts. In June, counterterrorism forces detained Riyadh Qassim, a Baghdad-based newspaper reporter, for 25 days before an investigative court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to hold him. Separately, in Anbar in March, military personnel briefly detained nine reporters and confiscated their cameras after they interviewed citizens in Fallujah who accused the army of failing to prevent rocket-propelled grenade attacks on election day.
The country is home to approximately 100 print outlets and an even larger number of television and radio stations. Still, Iraqi media are split along sectarian, ethnic, and political lines, and most news outlets are funded by political parties, blurring the distinction between news and opinion. The government controls the Iraqi Media Network, which includes Al-Iraqiya television and Al-Sabah newspaper. The difficult economic environment has led many media outlets to accept bribes in the form of advertising; advertising with no editorial demands attached makes up a small fraction of media outlets’ incomes. Due to the dearth of advertising revenue, some outlets also offer kickbacks and bribes to both state and private advertising agencies. Al-Sharqiya, which broadcasts from Dubai, is one of the largest Iraqi television stations, and nearly half of Iraqis have access to foreign satellite television channels, including Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
The internet operates without government restriction. Internet usage has steadily increased, but factors such as poor infrastructure have made the penetration rate in Iraq the lowest in the region, with only 5.6 percent of the population accessing the medium in 2010.