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Iraqi Journalists Say New Law Insufficient To Protect Rights

A memorial in Baghdad for journalists killed in Iraq, one of the most dangerous countries for the media
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq has announced a law to protect journalists' rights, but the country's journalists' syndicate said the bill was too vague and left them open to government interference.

Iraq has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and last month media watchdogs sent an open letter to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urging an end to the harassment and assault of journalists by state officials.

The draft bill -- which would apply only to Iraqi journalists -- says anyone who attacks a journalist on duty will receive the same punishment as an attack on a government employee.

It also lays out various levels of compensation for journalists killed or wounded.

"This draft law aims to provide security for Iraqi journalists in the republic of Iraq and to ensure their rights," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

But some passages were deemed problematic by Iraq's journalists' body, including protection for anonymous sources unless "the law requires the source is revealed," and a guarantee of freedom of the press that can be waived if publications "threaten citizens or make provocative or aggressive statements."

"We are afraid of any ambiguous additions which may restrict journalists. We will be there in parliament when the discussions happen, and we will try to convince them," said Muaid al-Lami, head of the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate.

What is published also cannot "serve enemies of the state," the bill read, without defining "enemies of the state" or what constitutes an aggressive or provocative statement.

The text had been amended by Iraq's cabinet from an original proposal by the journalists' syndicate, and will next be submitted to parliament to be ratified.

Iraq's media landscape has changed dramatically since the days of Saddam Hussein, when a few state-controlled publications and TV channels churned out endless propaganda.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, a proliferation of media has given Iraqis a choice between some 200 print outlets, 60 radio stations and 30 TV channels in Arabic, Turkmen, Syriac, and two Kurdish dialects.

Yet most media outlets remain dominated by sectarian and party patrons who use them for their own ends, and the government occasionally threatens to close the offices of media outlets that have offended it.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says 139 journalists and 51 others working for media outlets have been killed in Iraq since March 2003.