Four Iraqi newspapers attacked by unknown assailants

The Baghdad offices of at least four independent daily newspapers were attacked on April 1, 2013, with the assailants destroying equipment and injuring several employees.

About 50 men armed with knives, swords, batons, and guns broke in to the offices of Al-Dustour, Al-Barliman, and Al-Mustaqbal, destroying equipment, setting fire to the buildings, and assaulting the staff, according to news reports. Guards prevented the assailants from breaking in to the offices of a fourth paper, Al-Nas. The offices are all located in the Karrada neighbourhood of Baghdad, according to the local Iraqi press freedom group the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory.

It was unclear whether the same group of men attacked each newspaper or whether there were multiple groups conducting the attacks.

At least six individuals were injured in the attacks, according to local journalists and news reports. Younis Arraf, an editor for Al-Barliman, told the local press that one of the paper’s employees sustained severe leg injuries after the assailants threw him off the roof of the building. Arraf also said the assailants used the blunt edge of their blade to beat a guard. The wounds were not serious, he said.

Bassem al-Sheikh, editor-in-chief of Al-Dustour, told CPJ that four employees of the paper, whom he did not identify, were recovering after being stabbed and beaten. Al-Mustaqbal reported that no one at its offices had been injured in the attack.

Al-Sheikh also told CPJ that Al-Dustour‘s website had been attacked in conjunction with the physical assault, but did not offer further details. CPJ was unable to access the site on Tuesday. The site has since resumed publishing.

Al-Barliman‘s Arraf told the local independent news agency Mada Press that the attack occurred the same day that the paper’s staff had met with a group of supporters of the prominent Shia cleric Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, who called the paper’s coverage biased. Arraf said the attack began almost immediately after the supporters signaled a group of unidentified men as they were leaving the meeting.

Arraf said that a representative from al-Sarkhi’s office called Al-Barliman after the attacks, in which he apologized for the attacks and attempted to minimize their significance, according to Mada Press.

Local journalists affiliated with the four papers suggested in interviews to the local press that al-Sarkhi supporters were likely behind the attacks. A spokesman for al-Sarkhi issued a statement yesterday saying the ayatollah had received biased news coverage from the media, but denying that the cleric was involved and calling the attacks “unacceptable.”

News accounts reported that the papers had recently published articles critical of the ayatollah’s attempts to increase his influence in the Shia holy city of Karbala. On March 30, Al-Nas published an article likening the ayatollah’s residence in Karbala to an armed camp and comparing him to Juhayman al-Otaybi, the Saudi terrorist who led a siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Al-Barliman reprinted the article on April 1, 2013, the day of the attack. It is unclear if Al-Dustour and Al-Mustaqbal also reprinted the same article.

An online news website Chakooch also reprinted the same article on March 31, but it was not attacked.

The attacks occurred the same day that Al-Nas and Al-Dustour published statements from the ayatollah denying the allegations against him.

The police increased patrols near the newspaper offices and were investigating the attacks, Al-Dustour‘s al-Sheikh told CPJ by email. A police source told Reuters that they had already arrested two of the assailants.