Iraqi journalist threatened for reporting on corruption

New York, May 21, 2013–Iraqi authorities must launch an investigation into a May 14 episode in which a group of armed men raided the home of a journalist and briefly abducted his brother. The journalist, Azhar Shallal, had recently written about alleged corruption.

The assailants, discovering Shallal was not home, kidnapped his brother and interrogated him for a few hours, news reports said. Shallal told CPJ that his brother said the guards took him to the house of a prominent Sunni sheikh, Majid Ali Suleiman, where they demanded he stop writing about corruption.

Shallal, a reporter for Agence France-Presse, had begun a personal initiative on Facebook in April that sought to document corruption in Anbar province. Several recent postings alleged corruption in the construction of schools and the sale of public parks. Shallal said his posts on Facebook never mentioned Suleiman by name.

Local news media initially reported that the armed men belonged to the army or police, but the government denied involvement. Shallal told CPJ that after the abduction, he attempted to meet with Suleiman, who sent his son, Munzer, in his stead. The journalist said Munzer issued the same warning: Stop writing about corruption on Facebook or leave Anbar province.

It is not clear whether Suleiman has denied the allegations. CPJ’s attempts to obtain the sheikh’s contact information via social media networks, email accounts, and potential third party contacts were unsuccessful.

The journalist also said that the police had not taken action in response to the threats and his brother’s abduction, and that he no longer sleeps at home for fear of his life.

“The Iraqi government should immediately investigate the threats against Azhar Shallal and ensure the safety of his entire family,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Coordinator Sherif Mansour. “Journalists who report on allegations of corruption should not be fearful that assailants will storm into their homes and endanger their loved ones.”

Freedom of the press in Iraq has deteriorated recently as political tensions grow more intense in the country. Anbar province is one of several Sunni-majority areas that have witnessed significant demonstrations by Sunni protesters feeling disenfranchised by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in recent months. Last month, the government announced the closure of 10 satellite channels–most of them considered pro-Sunni–that had covered the protests critical of Maliki.

The ban came a week after government forces attacked Sunni protesters outside of Kirkuk, killing dozens. Just last week, security forces also physically assaulted and smashed the cameras of an Al-Baghdadia news crew in Baghdad, according to news reports.

But not all threats against journalists have come from the government. Non-state actors have also endangered the press. Last month, four newspapers were attacked by men armed with knives and batons angry over the coverage of a prominent Shia cleric. Meanwhile, Mohammed Fadel Taha, the former director of al-Rasheed’s Tikrit office, remains in the hospital in serious condition after a bomb blew up his car, fracturing his pelvis, four months ago, news reports said. It is not clear who is responsible for the attack.

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