June 6, 2006
His Excellency Nouri Kamal al-Maliki
C/o Embassy of the Republic of Iraq
1801 P Street, NW
Washington, DC, 20036
We are writing to express our concern about a disturbing pattern of restrictions on the press in Iraq, and to urge your new government to take swift action to ensure the ability of journalists to carry out their work without official interference.
Iraq’s media have made important gains over the last three years. Dozens of independent and partisan publications as well as broadcasters have emerged, ending decades of Iraqi state control and repression of the media. As a result, Iraqis today enjoy access to a variety of sources for news and information.
Generalized violence, including targeted attacks by insurgent groups, pose the primary threat to journalism in Iraq, and 100 journalists and media support staff have been killed in the past three years. However, press freedoms have also been undermined by acts of censorship, criminal prosecutions of journalists, intimidation, and physical threats against the media by Iraqi officials.
In the last year, CPJ has documented a series of disturbing incidents in which Iraqi journalists were criminally prosecuted or imprisoned for their work under restrictive laws, some dating back to the former government. Examples include:
*In April 2005, Ayad Mahmoud al-Tammimi and Ahmed Mutare Abbas of the daily Sada Wasit were detained after being sentenced to two and four months in prison, respectively, for allegedly defaming former Wasit provincial governor Mohammad Reda al-Jashamy. The newspaper had published articles accusing al-Jashamy of corruption and human rights abuses. Both men were released from jail, but face new charges of defaming al-Jashamy and local authorities in other articles published in the paper. If convicted, they face several years in prison.
*In January 2006, Kurdish-Austrian writer Kamal Karim was sentenced to 30 years in prison in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region for defamation in articles he had published on Kurdistanpost, an independent Kurdish news Web site, criticizing the KDP and its leader Masoud Barzani, whom he accused of corruption and abuse of power. Karim’s sentence was later reduced to 18 months and he was eventually pardoned and released.
*Mastura Mahmood, 25, a journalist for the women’s weekly paper Rewan, faces trial on two separate defamation charges brought in April 2006 by the director of the Halabja Monument, Ibrahim Hawrami, and the general directorate of the security forces. The charges stem from an article Mahmood wrote on March 16 to commemorate the 1988 Halabja poison gas attack allegedly carried out by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Mahmood interviewed a girl demonstrating in Halabja, and quoted her as saying that the security forces in the town were behaving in exactly the same way as Saddam’s Baathist party members had done. She was summoned to the Halabja police station on May 2, where she was arrested and released on bail.
*In May 2006, a criminal court in the city of Sulaymaniyah sentenced Twana Osman, editor-in-chief of Hawlati, and Asos Hardi, the paper’s former editor, to six-month suspended jail terms and fines of 75,000 dinars each (US$50), for having published an article alleging that Prime Minister Omer Fatah of the Kurdish regional government ordered the dismissal of two telephone company employees after they cut his phone line for failing to pay a bill.
*In May 2006, Hawez Hawezi, a 31-year-old high school teacher who writes for Hawlati, was summoned by Sulaymaniyah security forces, and arrested. This followed an article he wrote criticizing his treatment by security forces when he was held March 17-19 for a separate report critical of the region’s two main political parties. Hawezi, who had been free on bail since March, had accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of governing the region badly, referring to them as pharaohs. Hawezi now faces charges of defamation for both articles.
Iraqi governing authorities and security forces have impeded the work of journalists and news organizations in other ways. Over the past two years, CPJ has documented numerous cases of journalists who have been threatened, detained, or had their equipment confiscated by Iraqi police or armed forces. Others have had shots fired at them and at least one journalist, Kamal Manahi Anbar, was killed by Iraqi forces’ fire earlier this year. Iraqi governing authorities also continue to keep in place a ban on the Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera, whose Iraq offices were shut down in July 2004 for alleged incitement to violence and hatred. Iraqi officials alleged that Al-Jazeera’s reporting on kidnappings had encouraged Iraqi militants, and a government statement on the ban accused Al-Jazeera of being a mouthpiece for terrorist groups and contributing to instability in Iraq.
While most of the attacks against journalists have been perpetrated by local and regional officials, under the Iraqi constitution the federal government is responsible for upholding freedom of the press and must ensure that basic rights and freedoms are protected.
These cases of official harassment undermine the public commitments of Iraqi officials to democracy and a free press. Journalists should never face criminal prosecution or arrest and imprisonment for their work. Moreover, the banning of news organizations and police harassment of working journalists is the kind of behavior associated with autocratic governments in the region, not an aspiring democracy. The Committee to Protect Journalists urges your government to adopt the following recommendations aimed at bringing Iraq’s practices into line with international standards for a free press:
- immediate steps to cease all criminal prosecutions and the jailing of journalists because of their professional work; ensure that pending prosecutions or convictions are dismissed.
- Initiate legal reforms at both the regional and federal levels to abolish or amend laws–including criminal laws and laws the enable the jailing of journalists–that restrict the press in violation of international norms for press freedom.
- In coordination with regional authorities, ensure that acts of harassment and intimidation of the press by Iraqi police and security forces are halted.
- Lift the ban on Al-Jazeera, and allow all media to report from Iraq without government interference. We are alarmed by the cases of imprisonment, intimidation, and censorship of journalists at the hands of Iraqi officials, which we have documented. We call on you and your government to implement our recommendations, and ensure that press freedom is respected throughout Iraq.
We thank you for your attention to this extremely urgent matter. We await your response.