New York, July 16, 2014–At least two journalists were wounded, another arrested, and a newspaper office raided in the past week in Iraq amid heightened political uncertainty and violence, according to news reports and local press freedom groups.
The violations come as Iraqi authorities struggle to break political gridlock and form a new government while battling an insurgency spearheaded by the Islamic State, an Al-Qaeda splinter group that changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham after announcing the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate two weeks ago.
“Times of crisis put journalists at greater risk, but it is exactly at these times that the work of journalists is crucial,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, Sherif Mansour.
Two journalists on assignment for the U.S.-funded Arabic TV station Al-Hurra Iraq were injured on Sunday while covering clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State fighters in the district of Jurf al-Sakhar in Babil province. Deirdre Kline, director of communications for the station’s parent organization, the Virginia-based Middle East Broadcasting Networks, told CPJ that correspondent Maithem al-Shibani and an “assigned AP cameraman” were wounded when the military convoy with which they were traveling engaged in a six-hour long firefight with the Islamic State. The Associated Press did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request to confirm al-Khafaji’s affiliation with the agency. News reports identified the cameraman as Maitham al-Khafaji.
Al-Shibani filed a report for Al-Hurra, saying their convoy came under mortar and sniper fire as Iraqi security forces attempted to recover the bodies of some of their colleagues killed in earlier fighting. The vehicle carrying the journalists was hit directly by a rocket-propelled grenade. Al-Shibani suffered shrapnel injuries to his hand. Kline told CPJ that al-Khafaji suffered serious injuries to his chest, back, head, and hands and was taken to a nearby hospital.
Also on Sunday, Kurdish authorities arrested Mohsen Shooani, director of the local office of the Speda TV channel in Makhmour district, southwest of Erbil, according to the local press freedom group Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (PFAAIQ). The arrest followed the station’s coverage of a protest by local residents complaining about the lack of government services in the area, news reports said. CPJ research shows that covering social unrest in Iraqi Kurdistan can lead to retaliation against journalists.
Rahman Gharib, coordinator for the local press freedom group Metro Center to Defend Journalists, told CPJ that Shooani was released on bail a few hours after his arrest, but that he was being investigated on accusations of throwing rocks at security officers during the protest. He has not been officially charged.
Separately, on Monday, the Baghdad office of Al-Taakhi daily newspaper was raided by masked gunmen driving police vehicles, according to news reports. The gunmen threatened the staff with violence, confiscated equipment, cellphones, and account books, and took three cars belonging to the station, according to PFAAIQ, which cited the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Badirkhan Sindi. Sindi said that the editorial board decided to temporarily stop publishing the paper until the safety of the staff was assured.
Sindi told PFAAIQ that it is not clear who was behind the raid. Al-Taakhi newspaper is affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. In response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Barzani has proposed a popular referendum on whether the Kurdish region should declare independence from Iraq, according to news reports.
The Iraqi Ministry of Interior on Tuesday announced the formation of a committee to investigate the raid, saying that protection of freedom of the press was an essential mission of the ministry.
“We urge authorities in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq to ensure that journalists can do their work freely and safely, without fear of legal or physical reprisal,” said CPJ’s Mansour. “The Iraqi government must uphold its promise to conduct a thorough investigation into the raid on Al-Taakhi and hold those responsible to account.”
The heightened violence and political instability in Iraq has led to a substantial increase in the risks journalists face in the country. More than a dozen journalists have been killed in the past 10 months in Iraq, according to CPJ research.