New York, November 11, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces a Baghdad court’s ruling that the London-based Guardian newspaper defamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, left, in an April 2009 article depicting increasing authoritarianism in his government. CPJ calls on an appeals court to overturn the decision.
On Tuesday, the court fined the Guardian 100 million Iraqi dinars (US$86,000) in connection with the article, which quoted unnamed members of the intelligence service as saying that al-Maliki was conducting affairs of state in a more autocratic fashion.
Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger described the verdict as “a dismaying development,” Agence France-Presse reported. “Prime Minister Maliki is trying to construct a new, free Iraq. Freedom means little without free speech—and means even less if a head of state tries to use the law of libel to punish criticism or dissent,” he said. The newspaper said that it will appeal the verdict.
“We are very disappointed to see the politicization of the Iraqi judiciary in this way,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator
Of the 140 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003, at least 89 were targeted for murder, CPJ research shows. Iraqi authorities have not brought a single perpetrator to justice in any of those killings.
“This heavy-handed decision sends a chilling message to all journalists who have risked their lives to report from Iraq, and it resonates particularly now in the run-up to the general election scheduled for January,” said Abdel Dayem. “The article accused the prime minister’s government of being increasingly autocratic. This court case proved the point.”
As the security situation has improved, many journalists have told CPJ that government harassment, physical assaults, and frivolous legal proceedings have replaced insurgent attacks as the greatest professional risk they face. Al-Maliki has appeared to lead the legal assault against Iraqi journalists: At least two other defamation complaints have been filed by his representatives in connection with articles critical of the prime minister, CPJ research shows. Those complaints were dropped after they came under heavy criticism.
In June, CPJ and the Iraq-based press freedom group Journalistic Freedoms Observatory sent a letter to al-Maliki expressing concerns about increasing official harassment. In the first six months of the year, the two organizations documented more than 70 cases of harassment and assault against journalists in Iraq.