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Iraq: Security, Political Pressure Affect Media Performance

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

(RFE/RL) PRAGUE, August 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Increasingly frequent threats from insurgents and fear of government reprisals may be affecting the performance of journalists in Iraq.

Much as been written about the difficulties faced by Iraqi journalists, who, like their foreign counterparts in Iraq, have increasingly become the target of insurgent groups, political parties, and even government authorities for a myriad of reasons. But there is growing evidence that the security situation, coupled with weak governmental and institutional support for journalists, is impacting how Iraqi journalists report the news.

Insurgents target journalists either as a means of controlling what is being reported, exacting revenge for what a journalist has reported, or as in most cases, out of animosity for the journalist's employer. Much the same can be said for attacks on journalists carried out by militias and political parties. More disturbing is a recent upswing in attacks on journalists from government forces, both in Baghdad and in the Kurdish autonomous region.

Attacked From All Sides

Iraqi journalists today report feeling more under threat than at any other time since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. In addition to the dangers that come with navigating the dangerous streets of Baghdad, journalists in the capital say they must also navigate the sensitive political scene, censoring themselves to prevent reprisals.

Fear of beatings or arrests at the hands of police and security forces have left some journalists feeling particularly vulnerable. One Iraqi journalist recently recounted how a police officer stood idly by as others beat him. When the journalist asked the officer why he did not intervene, the officer reportedly responded: "I can't do anything for you. You don't know [who they are]. All I can tell you is that those guys are from the police."

Kamal Sayyid Qadir was arrested for writing articles critical of the Kurdish authorities (AFP)

A subsequent government press release on the incident referred to members of the media as "troublemakers."

As in Baghdad, journalists have faced continued arrests this year in the Kurdish region, particularly when covering demonstrations against the regional government. Dozens of journalists were jailed and had their cameras and equipment confiscated while covering demonstrations against the regional government in Halabjah in March, and again in several towns in early August.

Journalists have also faced arrest for reports critical of the regional government or the two main ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Such was the case with the arrest of an Austrian Kurd, Kamal Sayyid Qadir, last year, and in the arrests of two editors working for the independent newspaper "Hawlati," which is highly critical of both parties.

No Independent Voices

In Kirkuk, where tensions between rival ethnic and sectarian groups run high, some journalists have argued that an independent media no longer exists. Rather, journalists operating there are tied to either state-run media, which tends to reflect the position of the Shi'ite alliance; political parties; or Islamist groups present in the city.

The result has been the development of a media that fuels instability rather than providing independent news, analysis, and opinion. Political rivalries for control over the oil-rich city are reflected in the antagonistic and biased reporting of party-run newspapers, radio, and television, which in turn, raises tensions.

Such an atmosphere breeds bad journalism, with journalists working for their own interests. Journalists know that if they cannot provide reports that satisfy the particular demands or political slants of their editors or newspapers, they can easily be replaced by others willing to promote a specific line. In a country where unemployment runs at around 50 percent, it is much easier to tote the party line than to face what could potentially be months of unemployment.

Lack Of Institutional Support

Still, as many journalists point out, the press is far freer today than it was under decades of Ba'athist rule, where the state-run media was the only news provider. This attitude in itself is troubling, as it promotes an acceptance of low ethical and journalistic standards as the norm.

Part of the problem is that Iraq still lacks strong supporting institutions that could act as a counterweight to government pressure. Though journalists unions exist in every part of the country, they are, by and large, considered weak, and remain linked to political parties and agendas. For example, the Baghdad-based Iraqi Journalists Union, established in 1969, continues to act as a bastion of support for the deposed Ba'ath Party.

Iraqi laws related to the press also need to be strengthened. The new constitution calls for freedom of "press, publishing, media, and distribution," but only "as long as it does not violate public order and morality." Such language leaves media outlets vulnerable to the government's interpretation of the law.

Moreover, as IREX's 2006 Media Sustainability Index on Iraq reported earlier this year: "Iraq's political powers do not differentiate between journalistic reporting of facts and viewpoints and the information and opinions themselves, and the fledgling Iraqi legal system does not protect journalists in this context."

Indeed, greater awareness is needed. Contributors to the IREX report noted a general ignorance on the part of politicians over the meaning of media freedom.
Press Under Assault

(AFP)

BREAKING THE NEWS: Press freedom is under assault in virtually all of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Independent media confront enormous challenges in providing citizens with the independent information that can help advance democratic reforms. On May 2, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable briefing that gave an overview of media developments in the CIS and discussed the connections between press freedom and future democratization. The briefing featured Freedom House Director of Studies CHRISTOPHER WALKER, American University Associate Research Professor ROBERT ORTTUNG, and RFE/RL Central Asia analyst DANIEL KIMMAGE.


LISTEN

Listen to the entire briefing (about 90 minutes):
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RFE/RL's Press Freedom Day stories:

Iraq: Covering The Most Dangerous Beat On Earth

Afghanistan: Women In Journalism Battle Restrictions, Threats

Iran: State Maintains Tight Control Over Information

CIS: Press Freedom In Former Soviet Union Under Assault

Central Asia: Bureaucratic Obstacles Hinder Journalists

Central Asia: Governments Wary Of Independent Media

Central Asia: Journalists Still Face Harassment, Threats

THE COMPLETE STORY: To view an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of media-related stories, click here.



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