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Iraqi Journalists Fear Persecution, Imprisonment, Death

Iraqi reporters do not just face persecution and threats from Islamic State. They are also harassed by officials who "refuse to accept criticism and do not hesitate to bring judicial proceedings against them," RSF says.
Iraqi reporters do not just face persecution and threats from Islamic State. They are also harassed by officials who "refuse to accept criticism and do not hesitate to bring judicial proceedings against them," RSF says.

The world was recently reminded of the dangers faced by journalists in Iraq when threats prompted a Reuters bureau chief to leave the country.

The threats against Ned Parker followed an April 3 report that detailed incidents of lynching and looting in Tikrit by Shi'ite militia forces that had helped Iraqi government recapture the city from Islamic State (IS) gunmen.

A Facebook page linked to Shi'ite militias called for Parker's expulsion from Iraq, and one commenter said the best way to silence Parker would be to kill him.

In the ensuing days an Iraqi television channel owned by Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed armed group, accused Reuters of denigrating Iraq. Airing Parker's photo, the channel called on viewers to demand his expulsion.

The threats, tied to Shi'ite militias who have fought IS alongside Iraqi government forces, were taken seriously enough to hasten Parker's departure and to impel Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to ask for increased protection of Reuters' Baghdad office.

But while no one is questioning the bravery of foreign correspondents like Parker, some observers say they have an easier time than their Iraqi colleagues.

"Regarding Parker's departure from Iraq after having been threatened, I don't find that the threats were real, because they were [against] a person who does not move around in Baghdad or in other Iraqi cities," says Hadi Jallu Mar'ee, director of the Iraqi Observatory for Journalistic Freedoms.

The controversial April 3 article credits Reuters correspondents, whose names have been withheld for security reasons, for reporting the piece from Tikrit, while Parker is given credit for writing the article and reporting from Baghdad.

In an interview with RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq's Samira Ali Mandee, Mar'ee argues that the work of foreign correspondents "is different from that of the Iraqi journalists who move from one location to another amid bombardments, sniper fire, and face IS gunmen in Mosul, Salahuddin, and Anbar [provinces]."

Mar'ee told RFE/RL that many Iraqi reporters from local news outlets who have covered the fighting between Iraqi forces and IS have been wounded, forbidden from covering events in more than one province, and detained.

"This has happened in Babel, Najaf, Mosul, Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala and other parts of Iraq," Mar'ee says. "Some journalists have been ambushed and subjected to murder attempts."

Mar'ee notes that journalists have been executed in Mosul, and the fates of others who were working there are unknown. "There were 14 detained journalists in Mosul. A number were released and seven of them were moved to Raqqa, and two were executed," Mar'ee says. "We've now had six journalists executed in Mosul in addition to [local telejournalist] Ra'ad al-Azzawi, who was executed in Salahuddin, east of Tikrit."

Muhammad al-Bayati, editor in chief of the Nineveh Journalists' Network, tells RFE/RL that IS militants have transferred seven captive journalists from Mosul to Syria.

While the situation for journalists in Iraq has always been dangerous -- Bayati says that 58 journalists have been killed in Mosul since 2003 -- the number of reporters who have died in the city has increased since IS gunmen overran Mosul in June 2014.

Bayati describes how, when IS militants initially overran Mosul last summer, they tried to reassure journalists, doctors, other professionals and the general population that all was well.

IS militants "worked on making themselves amiable to those who agreed to meet with them at a conference. The journalists who attended were probably afraid of IS repercussions against them, but they were told that they were free..., that those who want to work with them [IS] were welcome, as were those who chose not to work with them."

The journalists were told they "could do what they want, provided that they did not work against IS," Bayati says.

Those who did work against IS, however, would face punishment "in accordance with Shari'a law," according to Bayati.

While some of Mosul's journalists left the city -- moving to Iraq's Kurdistan region or to the capital, Baghdad -- others remained, having decided to trust IS.

Nevertheless, after IS consolidated its grip on Mosul, the extremist group began a campaign of liquidation against the journalists who had chosen to stay.

"It is well known that IS cannot be trusted," Bayati says. "They have reneged on their initial amicable claims, and now journalists and their families are being pursued and detained, as has been the case with security personnel of the [Iraqi] Defense and Interior ministries. What is going on is beyond belief or understanding."

According to Bayati, IS detained around 19 journalists in Mosul, nine of whom were "intermittently released." IS gunmen killed two of the journalists, while a number of detainees were transferred from Al-Qayara near Mosul to Raqqa, IS's stronghold in Syria.

In Iraq's Salahuddin Province, journalists have been killed and abducted, and gunmen have confiscated equipment belonging to media outlets, says Marwan Jubara, the director of the Sama Salahuddin TV channel.

"Our satellite organizations here in Salahuddin and previously in Nineveh have been subjected to serious violations by IS," Jubara tells RFE/RL. "One of our cameramen was executed and one of our staff has been abducted; our equipment has been confiscated and taken to unknown locations. Our building has been partially destroyed and some of our essential property has been stolen."

Those journalists who managed to escape IS persecution and flee the area are also suffering, Jubara says, because they have lost their salaries and many have found themselves unable to find work.

"Most of those who went to [Iraqi] Kurdistan cannot work there since the language is different," Jubara says. "They lost their salaries when IS came in, and they were neglected by the journalists' unions, and the Iraqi government did not provide them with anything. This important and influential group of people has also been neglected by the government."

IS militants have carried out similar actions against Kurdish journalists working in areas under the control of the extremist group.

Rahman Ghareeb, director of the Metro Center for Journalist Rights and Advocacy in Iraqi Kurdistan, tells RFE/RL that IS gunmen have abducted three Kurdish journalists, whose fate remains unknown.

Farhad Hamo and Massoud Aqeel, freelance journalists working for Kurdish outlet Rudaw, were kidnapped by IS militants on December 15 on the main road between Qamishli and Al-Yarubiya on the Syria-Iraq border.

Ghareeb says that IS told journalists working in areas controlled by the group that "there is no alternative media output or any alternative opinion."

"The journalists' situation is a reflection of IS's terrorist methodology of killing disagreement and dissent in general," Ghareeb says. "IS has carried out the killing and slaughter of foreign journalists and Iraqi journalists working for media channels. This all presents the picture of IS's desire for just one media voice with just one color."

As a result of IS's total control over journalists in the areas under its control, information is "suppressed or inaccessible" in cities held or under attack by IS, according to Reporters Without Borders, which has been documenting abuses against journalists in Iraq.

Beyond IS

As Parker's departure underscores, Iraqi reporters do not just face persecution and threats from IS. According to Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Iraq 156th out of 180 countries in its 2015 press-freedom index, Iraqi journalists are also harassed by officials who "refuse to accept criticism and do not hesitate to bring judicial proceedings against them."

Mar'ee from the Iraqi Observatory for Journalistic Freedoms says that Iraqi journalists are particularly afraid of covering cases involving corruption.

"They're afraid to name names or provide a true and actual coverage of blackmail, threats, or killings," Mar'ee says. "There are journalists who are banned from coverage who are abused at checkpoints and by some officials' bodyguards. They are detained for hours without any justification."

After Parker left Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi pledged to "cultivate an environment where free speech is fostered in both local and foreign media." "We staunchly oppose any bullying, intimidation towards the media and any attempts to curb and encumber freedom of speech," Abadi added.

Whether Abadi can make good on his pledge remains to be seen. But even if he can pull it off in areas clearly under his authority, Iraqi journalists operating in IS-controlled areas remain in danger.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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