Iraq’s journalist protection law doesn’t protect them

New York, January 24, 2012–Iraq’s Journalist Protection Law falls short of international standards of freedom of expression and should immediately be repealed, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The law, which was passed in parliament in August after the government faced pressure for media reform in recent years, fails to offer any meaningful protection to journalists and imposes restrictions on who can be defined as a journalist and how one can practice and access information, CPJ’s review of the law found. The law, which took effect in November, is also being challenged in the Federal Supreme Court on Monday by a local press freedom group.

Previous laws in Iraq, including the 1969 Penal Code, which criminalizes defamation, and the 1968 Publications Law, which allows journalists to be imprisoned for up to seven years for insulting the government, are still applicable to journalists in addition to this law, CPJ research shows.

“The Journalist Protection Law evidently fails to protect journalists,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “What the government has done is pile one badly written law on top of at least two older, restrictive laws. The result is a legal nightmare for journalists.”

A local Iraqi group, the Society for Defending Press Freedom in Iraq, has challenged the law and is calling for its repeal in court on Monday. The group’s president, Oday Hatem, told CPJ that the law’s main problem was that it could be used as a tool by authorities to restrict media freedoms. “If Iraq wants to afford journalists’ rights, they should amend the existing laws, not keep the old ones from Saddam’s era and add new ones that provide no added value,” Hatem said.

The law, composed of 19 articles and wrought with ambiguities, narrowly defines a journalist as someone who works full-time, in effect excluding part-time journalists, bloggers, and other individuals involved in disseminating news. Although the law does offer journalists compensation in the cases of death or injury, among other services, it fails to be effective since it does not clearly define who would be covered. It also states that media groups must register “under the law,” but does not specify what law, and says journalists have the “right to obtain information, news, statements, and statistics…within the limits of the law,” but again does not specify what law it is referring to. The ambiguities here create unnecessary barriers to access to information, CPJ research shows.

Although the law has been in effect for several months, it has seemingly offered little protection for journalists. On Thursday, Ali al-Fayad, a reporter for the daily Al-Zaman in the Wasit governorate in central Iraq, was released after being detained for five days without a judicial warrant, an action that the law allegedly prevents under Article 10. The journalist was told he was detained for writing about the termination of police officers’ jobs in Wasit, news reports said.