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Watchdogs Urge Iraq To End Media Harassment

A poster in Baghdad reading "Stop Killing Journalists" and bearing images of media personnel killed in Iraq.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Media watchdogs have urged Iraq's government to end harassment and intimidation of journalists and push for the release of a freelance photographer working for Reuters, who is being held by the U.S. military.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory said Iraqi media had made significant strides since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 but now faced tough challenges.

"Along with that progress Iraqi journalists have paid a steep price," the groups said in the letter sent on June 10.

"In recent months, our organizations have documented a number of assaults and instances of harassment committed by government officials against journalists in various parts of the country under the control of Iraq's central government."

The CPJ says Iraq is the most dangerous country for working journalists, with 139 reporters and 51 others working for media organizations killed in Iraq since the invasion.

Reporting on a complex conflict, journalists have faced attacks from myriad groups, been caught up in bombings and clashes, or been killed by the U.S. military.

The media watchdogs called on Maliki's government to condemn violent attacks and intimidation against journalists, as well as to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for killing, attacking, or harassing them.

They urged it to order government agencies to halt the filing of politically motivated lawsuits against journalists and publications, and to suspend or amend Iraqi laws that criminalize and set harsh penalties for press-related offences.

Iraq's intelligence service is suing Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, the publication said last month. Other publications and websites have also been threatened with lawsuits.

The groups also called on Maliki's administration to press the U.S. military to respect the decision of an Iraqi court and release Ibrahim Jassam Muhammad, a freelance photographer for Reuters who has been held since September 2008 without charge.

Last November, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled that there was no evidence against Jassam and ordered U.S. forces to free him.

A U.S. military spokesman said at the time the U.S. military was not obliged to obey the local court's order and would continue to hold him into 2009.

Jassam has since been moved to the Camp Bucca detention center in southern Iraq. The U.S. military says he is a security threat to Iraq but has declined to provide evidence.

Reuters and global media watchdogs have frequently criticized the U.S. military's refusal to deal more quickly with suspicions apparently arising from what might be legitimate activities of reporters, such as filming clashes.