CPJ, JFO cite press freedom abuses in Iraq

June 10, 2009


Nuri al-Maliki
Prime Minister of Iraq
C/O Embassy of the Republic of Iraq
3421 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20007 

Via Facsimile: 202-333-1129


Dear Prime Minister al-Maliki,

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) would like to bring to your attention several issues that harm press freedom in Iraq. 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.

Since 2003, the press in Iraq has made significant strides as hundreds of independent, party- or state-run newspapers, radio and television stations have emerged. Unfortunately, along with that progress Iraqi journalists have paid a steep price. For the past six years Iraq has topped CPJ’s list as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. As of June 9, CPJ has documented the deaths of 139 journalists and 51 media workers in Iraq since March 2003. Three were killed this year. JFO’s records shows an even higher number of killed journalists and media workers.

In May, at the Iraqi Journalism Summit in Baghdad, you said, “We are proud that we don’t have a single imprisoned journalist because of freedom of expression.” CPJ and the Observatory commend your government for this, but call on you to press the U.S. military to release Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam, who has been held in a U.S. military prison since September 2008 without charge.

In recent months many journalists have faced harassment and in some cases assault by Iraqi security forces. In other cases, high-ranking government officials have used lawsuits as a political tool to obstruct and silence the news media.

In order to improve the working environment for journalists in Iraq, CPJ and JFO call on your government to take the following steps:

  • Press the U.S. military to respect the decision of the Iraqi courts and immediately release Ibrahim Jassam.
  • Publicly condemn violent attacks and acts of intimidation against journalists. Investigate and bring to justice those who are responsible for killing, attacking, or harassing journalists.
  • Direct government agencies to halt the filing of filing politically motivated lawsuits against journalists and publications.
  • Direct all relevant security and military forces to end the use of force to harass or prevent journalists from doing their work.
  • Suspend or amend articles 81, 82, 83, 84, 201, 202, 210, 211, 215, 225, 226, 227, 403, 433 and 434 of Law 111/1969, more commonly known as the 1969 penal code. These provisions criminalize and set harsh penalties for press related offenses.
  • Ensure all other laws, present and future, are in compliance with international standards for free expression.

Attached to this letter is a short report in which CPJ and JFO document with more specificity violations against journalists since the beginning of this year.

Thank you in advance for your attention to these important matters. We look forward for your response.


Joel Simon
Executive Director, CPJ

Ziad al-Ajily
Director, JFO

Assaults, threats, and legal actions against journalists in Iraq

Ibrahim Jassam held for more than nine months:

Jassam, a freelance photographer working for Reuters, was detained on September 2, 2008 by U.S. and Iraqi forces during a raid at his home in Mahmoodiya, south of Baghdad. On November 30, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled there was no evidence to hold Jassam and ordered the U.S. military to release him from Camp Cropper near Baghdad, Reuters reported.

U.S. military authorities rejected the court order saying that Jassam “continued to pose a serious threat to the security and stability of Iraq.” In correspondence dated February 9 of this year, Chief of Public Affairs Maj. Neal Fisher told CPJ that Jassam and about 15,000 other detainees would be released in accordance with a “ranking based on their assessed threat” level. Fisher could not provide more detail as to when that would take place.

Assaults and harassments against journalists:

JFO has documented more than 70 cases of assaults and harassment against journalists in various cities in Iraq in which security forces used force, threats, and the destruction of recording and filming equipment in an effort to prevent journalists from doing their works. Here are some examples:

  • On February 13, a crew from Al-Itijah satellite station was en route to Karbala when its vehicle was stopped at the gates of the city by army soldiers, Ahmed Al-Azari told JFO. He said they introduced themselves as reporters and presented official letters allowing them to enter the city, but a soldier ordered them to go back to Baghdad. When the crew refused, the soldiers assaulted the crew members. “They beat us without mercy even as we were screaming, ‘We are journalists,'” Al-Azari said. The crew was detained for about two hours and was released only after police in the city intervened.
  • On February 23, your bodyguards prevented press crews from covering the reopening ceremony of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, JFO reported. Ahmad ‘Aram, a journalist with Al-Hurra television, told CPJ that the guards pushed him and other journalists out of the building under the justification that there was no space for journalists in the press conference hall. “One guard screamed at me, ‘If you don’t back off, I will break your teeth,'” ‘Aram said. The journalists were allowed into the hall only after a staffer from the prime minister’s office intervened, ‘Aram told CPJ. 
  • On March 5, Amjad Tali’, a correspondent with the state-run television station Al-Iraqiya, and about 20 other journalists were preparing to cover processions of religious rituals in Al-Askari mosque in Samara, northwest of Baghdad, when they were stopped at a nearby security checkpoint, he told CPJ and JFO. “We introduced ourselves as journalists, but the troops did not care,” he told CPJ. Tali’ said that security forces assaulted his cameraman, Majeed Imadedin. The crew was allowed to enter the shrine after more than an hour, Tali’ said.
  • Mahmood al-Mafraji, a journalist with the National Iraqi News Agency, was assaulted by plainclothes guards for then-Trade Minister Abdel-Falah al-Sudani at an April 13 press conference, the journalist told JFO. Al-Mafraji told CPJ that he was interviewing a visiting Syrian delegation when he was pushed out of the conference room. “I was beaten on the back of my head and fell to the ground,” he told CPJ. He said hotel guards helped him to get out of the building. The Ministry of Trade apologized to the journalist and to the station after the episode was reported in the local press, al-Mafraji said. 

Lawsuits and threats to file lawsuits:

Since January 1, our organizations have documented several instances in which high-ranking government officials have used civil lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits to intimidate critical news organizations.

  • On May 26, the London-based Guardian newspaper reported that the Iraqi National Intelligence Service had filed a lawsuit against the newspaper over an article in which unnamed sources characterized the prime minister as “increasingly autocratic,” the newspaper reported. The Guardian said the lawsuit, which seeks US$1 million in damages, was filed at the direction of your office. The government initially demanded the closure of The Guardian‘s Baghdad bureau but later dropped that demand, the newspaper said. 
  • Former Minister of Trade al-Sudani filed three defamation lawsuits in May against the Baghdad-based independent daily Al-Mashriq, after the newspaper published an article in 2007 and two additional articles in 2009 alleging corruption in the ministry, Fuad Ghazi, editor-in-chief, told CPJ. The minister demanded 50 million Iraqi dinars ($43,260) in damages for publishing each article, Ghazi said. The ministry later withdrew the lawsuits at the request of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, according to the ministry’s Web site.
  • The former trade minister, who is currently under investigation on corruption charges, filed a similar lawsuit on April 30 against the independent daily Al-Barlaman newspaper and demanded 50 million dinars ($43,260) in damages, Alia Talib, editor-in-chief, told CPJ. The newspaper had published an article on April 20 in which a member of parliament had accused the minister of corruption. Later the minister withdrew the lawsuit.
  • The Directorate of Properties and Real Estate at the Ministry of Transportation in April filed a defamation lawsuit against Baghdad-based Al-Diyar television after the station aired interviews with ministry employees who complained that they had been fired after more than a decade of service, Imad al-Ibadi, a consultant with the station, told CPJ. On April 13, the court awarded damages of 10 million dinars ($8,650). The station appealed the ruling and the case is pending, al-Ibadi said.
  • On April 13, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta al-Moussawi, spokesman for Baghdad Military Command Operations, announced that the military would file defamation lawsuits against the Dubai-based Al-Sharqiya television and the London-based daily Al-Hayat after they attributed a comment to him that he had not made. Al-Hayat quoted al-Moussawi as saying that the Iraqi military has “distributed names and pictures of released detainees to checkpoints with the aim of arresting them in connection with recent bombings in Baghdad.” Al-Sharqiya picked up Al-Hayat‘s story. Al-Hayat later posted a correction on its Web site saying that the information had come from an unnamed source, not al-Moussawi, The Associated Press reported. The status of the defamation cases is not clear. A spokesman for Al-Sharqiya told CPJ on June 4 that it had yet to receive a summons.
  • On February 10, your lawyer filed a defamation lawsuit against Ayad al-Zamli, owner of the popular Germany-based Web site Kitabat and a second person who writes under the pseudonym Ali Hussein. The complaint stemmed from a January 5 article accusing the prime minister’s chief of staff of nepotism.  The lawsuit demanded one billion dinars (US$865,380) in damages. On May 28, after local and international outcry, the lawyer called al-Zamli to inform him that the lawsuit has been withdrawn, he told CPJ. 

The need for reforming provisions of the 1969 Penal Code relating to the press:

Law 111/1969, commonly known as the 1969 Iraqi Penal Code, criminalizes press-related offenses and sets strict punishments for journalists, according to CPJ’s analysis. Local and international press freedom advocacy groups have offered similar views.

Articles 81, 82, 83, 84, 201, 202, 210, 211, 215, 225, 226, 227, 403, 433 and 434 of the penal code prescribe fines, long prison terms, or both for a host of press violations. Some offenses carry the death penalty. For example, the penal code calls for lifetime imprisonment or the death penalty for insulting the president, the National Assembly, or the government, and seven years imprisonment for insulting the courts, the armed forces, public authorities, or government agencies. 

The penal code also sets harsh prison terms and fines for broadcasting and publishing false information, importing and distributing pictures and materials that disturb public security, defame, or slander. 

It is vital that press-related laws be revised or drafted in compliance with the Iraqi Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the rights to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the forms of art, or through any other media.” 

A press law that protects journalists and guarantees their access to information is crucial to continued progress for the state of the press in Iraq.

Research and reporting by Mariwan Hama-Saeed, CPJ Middle East and North Africa program research associate. Additional research provided by the Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedom Observatory.