Attacks on the Press 2009: Iraq

Top Developments
•  Fatalities and abductions plummet as security situation improves.
•  Prime minister, others file lawsuits to harass media. Kurdish courts jail six journalists.

Key Statistic
4: Journalists killed in connection to their work, the lowest tally since the war began in 2003.

Four Iraqi journalists were killed because of their work as the press continued to face great challenges and risks. Nevertheless, the death toll dropped to its lowest point since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and, for the first time in six years, Iraq was not the world’s deadliest nation for journalists. (It was replaced by the Philippines.) No journalists or media workers were reported abducted, reflecting another steep drop from prior years.


Main Index
• Regional Analysis:
Human rights coverage spreads despite government pushback
Country Summaries
Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Other developments

The marked decline in media fatalities and abductions was consistent with an overall drop in violence in recent years. Analysts cited a variety of factors, including the increasing participation of Sunni groups and other sectarian elements in the political process and the shift in security responsibilities from the U.S. military to Iraqi forces. By June 30, as part of an agreement between the United States and Iraq, U.S. troops withdrew from all Iraqi cities and towns, handing control of security to the Iraqi government.

“The security situation continued to improve because the political parties and insurgents kept losing their armed powers,” said Ziad al-Ajili, director of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, JFO, a local press freedom group. “The improvement in security has reflected positively on the safety of journalists in Iraq.” Foreign correspondents agreed. “Apparently journalists are no longer a specific target,” Quil Lawrence, NPR’s Baghdad bureau chief, told CPJ. Continuing a years-long trend, Iraqi journalists played the dominant role in covering developments in 2009; only the largest Western news outlets continued to maintain bureaus or a full-time presence in the nation.

But improvements in security were a matter of degree as deadly violence continued to strike in Baghdad, Mosul, and other cities. Devastating insurgent bombings in August, October, and December targeted the heart of the Iraqi government—including the ministries of finance and foreign affairs—and left hundreds dead. The bombings, reminders of the fragility of the security situation, caused some late-year re-examination among journalists. “For about a year people had been on the assumption that things were getting quieter; therefore journalists were moving more and more freely,” Lawrence said. “But since the bombings in August, people are reassessing how safe things are.”

As was the case in 2008, all of the journalists killed in 2009 were Iraqis. All four were killed in areas where tensions remained high between sectarian groups. Haidar Hashim Suhail, a correspondent for the Iraqi-owned, Cairo-based Al-Baghdadia satellite television network, and cameraman Suhaib Adnan were among more than 30 people killed in a suicide bombing on March 10 in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad in Anbar province. Four other journalists were injured in the attack. The journalists had accompanied Brig. Gen. Mard Abdul Hassan, a high-ranking Ministry of Interior official, to a tribal reconciliation gathering. The bomber detonated the explosive when the official was meeting with residents on a busy street, journalists told CPJ. Abdul Hassan survived.

On May 31, Alaa Abdel-Wahab, a sports reporter for Al-Baghdadia, was killed in Mosul when a bomb attached to his car exploded, according to CPJ sources. Sultan Jerjis, a sports journalist with Al-Rasheed radio, was injured in the attack. In a similar but unrelated attack the same day, two staffers of the state-run Al-Iraqiya satellite channel were injured when a bomb attached to their car exploded in the Al-Azamiya neighborhood in Baghdad, according to local press reports.

In October, Orhan Hijran, a cameraman with Al-Rasheed television, was killed when a bomb exploded in front of his house in the Al-Khadhrah neighborhood of southwestern Kirkuk, Bureau Chief Jawdat Assaf told CPJ. Roadside bombs often struck the southwestern area of Kirkuk, which was frequently traveled by the U.S. military, local journalists told CPJ. Assaf said the area where Hijran was killed included a police checkpoint and had been the target of more than a dozen roadside bombs. Kirkuk, at the center of oil production in northern Iraq, is home to a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians, and remained a flashpoint for violence.

Iraqi authorities failed to address impunity in journalist murders, one of the many brutal legacies of the conflict. Of the 140 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003, at least 89 were targeted for murder. By year’s end, Iraqi authorities had yet to bring a single killer to justice in any of those murders. Iraq ranked first worldwide on CPJ’s Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of the nation’s population.

For many journalists, government harassment, assaults, and legal action supplanted deadly insurgent violence as the most frequent work-related risk. “Officials don’t want journalists to write about things such as security issues, violations of human rights, lack of basic services, and corruption,” JFO director al-Ajili said. “They are imposing restrictions on journalists—and the direction they are taking is more toward authoritarianism.”

Numerous journalists were harassed or assaulted by police during provincial elections in late January, according to local and international news reports. In Basra, guards at a correctional facility assaulted about 15 reporters and broke equipment when voting started, local and international news agencies reported. The guards claimed that photographers had taken pictures of inmates’ faces, according to news reports.

Iraqi officials also brought legal action against domestic and international journalists. In February, a lawyer for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki filed a lawsuit against Ayad al-Zamli, owner of the German-based Arabic Web site Kitabat, and a writer who had written under the pseudonym of Ali Hussein, in connection with an article describing alleged nepotism in the prime minister’s office. The lawsuit demanded 1 billion dinars (US$865,380) in damages, according to a copy of the complaint. After local and international outcry, al-Maliki withdrew the lawsuit in May.

That same month, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) filed a defamation complaint against the London-based Guardian newspaper for an article in which sources characterized the prime minister as “increasingly autocratic,” the paper reported. In November, in a move that drew condemnation from domestic and international observers, a Baghdad court ordered the paper to pay 100 million dinars (US$86,000) in damages. The paper said it would appeal.

One piece of legislation, while ostensibly benefitting journalists, also raised questions. A journalist protection measure—written in conjunction with the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate and pending in late year—was designed to aid the press by providing compensation for injured journalists, ensuring security for those under threat, and ensuring the right to obtain government information. But local and international press freedom advocates expressed concerns about several provisions in the draft. One article, for example, narrowly defined a journalist as someone who both works for an established news outlet and is affiliated with the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate. The provision was seen by some as imposing a licensing system on journalists.

Faruq Abdulqadir, the minister of communications, conceded in a July interview with U.S. government-funded Al-Hurra television that the government planned to regulate online publications. In a subsequent statement, the Ministry of Communications said vaguely that it planned to block “some Web sites that affect the manners and the security of the country.” Majeed Hameed, director general for the ministry’s Internet section, said in the statement that the government would consider Web monitoring tactics used by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as models. To varying degrees, both countries have restrictive online regulations.

Journalists spoke out against government intimidation. In June, CPJ and JFO 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. On August 14, hundreds of journalists, academics, and press freedom advocates demonstrated on Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabi Street to protest increasing government restrictions, according to local and international press reports.

The press faced heightened restrictions even in the relatively secure northern provinces controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government. A press law that took effect in October 2008 was lauded at the time for omitting prison penalties for press offenses such as defamation, but the language of the measure was vague enough to be open to different interpretations in court. CPJ documented six cases in which police and judges in Kurdistan briefly jailed journalists under the 1969 Iraqi penal code. In a letter sent in May to Nechirvan Barzani, then the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister, CPJ expressed concern over poor implementation of the Kurdish press law.

Jassim Muhammad, a reporter and a director of the media division of the Kurdistan Islamic Union in Zakho, an Islamist party with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, spent six days in January in a prison run by the Asaish, or security service, after he briefly launched a television station without a license, he told CPJ. Asaish charged him under the 1969 Iraqi penal code for “disobeying official orders”; Muhammad was acquitted in May.

In another case, Kawa Garmiani, a reporter with Khawn magazine, spent five days in prison in January in connection with defamation lawsuits filed by government agencies in Kalar, southeast of Sulaymaniyah. He had quoted sources as saying that the grounds of a Kalar hospital had become a favorite spot for a romantic rendezvous, he told CPJ. 

A Kurdish court found that a local newspaper defamed national and regional leaders when it printed a translated version of a critical report by a U.S. analyst in 2008. In March, a court in Sulaymaniyah fined Hawlati, the region’s most popular newspaper, 10 million dinars (US$8,653) and Abid Aref, its former editor, 3 million dinars (US$2,590). The report, by Michael Rubin of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, was highly critical of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who also headed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan. Rubin questioned U.S. strategic relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, pointing out undemocratic governance and rampant corruption.

In April, Kurdish regional authorities charged three people with plotting to murder Ahmed Mira, editor-in-chief of the critical Sulaymaniyah-based Livin magazine, Mira and his lawyer, Othman Sidiq, told CPJ. The news of the plot came a few months after unidentified gunmen killed Soran Mama Hama, a Livin reporter in Kirkuk. In August, a criminal court in Sulaymaniyah found two suspects guilty of plotting to kill Mira and sentenced them to six years in prison.

One journalist was seriously wounded by U.S. military fire in January. Hadil Emad, 25, an editor for Biladi television, was on her way home from work when she was shot near a checkpoint at Al-Jadriyya Bridge in Baghdad, according to local and international news reports. A U.S. military statement claimed she had “acted suspiciously.”

The U.S. military continued to hold a freelance photographer without charge or due process. Ibrahim Jassam was detained during a September 2008 raid at his home in Mahmoodiya, south of Baghdad, according to local and international news reports. In November 2008, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court ruled there was no evidence to hold Jassam and ordered the U.S. military to release him. U.S. military authorities rejected the court order, saying that Jassam “continued to pose a serious threat to the security and stability of Iraq.” 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. CPJ sought Jassam’s release in two letters to U.S. President Barack Obama. Over the course of the war, the U.S. military has detained at least 13 journalists for prolonged periods without charge, according to CPJ research. All of the others were released without charges being substantiated.

The journalist who caused an international spectacle when he threw a pair of shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush was convicted of assault against a public official. Muntadhar al-Zaidi, a correspondent for Al-Baghdadia satellite television, was sentenced to a one-year prison term in February. Al-Zaidi, who tossed the shoes during a December 2008 press conference, was released in September for good behavior. Al-Zaidi told the press that he had suffered beatings, whippings, electric shocks, and simulated drowning at the hands of officials and guards.