Washington, March 11, 2016 - Iraqi prosecutors should drop all charges against Montadhar Naser, the editor of the independent news site Al-Aalem al-Jadeed, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The editor is scheduled to appear in a Baghdad court on March 14 to answer criminal defamation and insult charges in connection with a report he published alleging corruption, according to the website and local and regional press freedom groups.
When, on March 1, Naser first appeared before Iraq's Federal Publishing and Media Court in Baghdad, prosecutors repeatedly asked him to reveal the source for a February 12 report alleging that a telecommunications regulatory official accepted kick-backs from mobile phone companies to turn a blind eye to inconsistent billing practices and to prevent new entrants to the market, the editor told CPJ. Naser said he refused to divulge the source for that article, and that the judges released him on bail of 1 million Iraqi dinars ($904) until the March 14 hearing. Naser said he faces up to six months in prison if convicted.
"Under no circumstances should Montadher Naser face criminal penalties for publishing investigative reports on corruption or protecting his sources," said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. "Rather than prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs, Iraqi authorities should devote their energies to striking criminal defamation laws from the country's books."
International human rights instruments and a growing body of international legal opinion clearly state that criminal defamation laws can have a chilling effect on speech by hampering the rights to receive and impart information.
Naser told CPJ he removed the February 12 article from the website hours after it ran because he began receiving text messages threatening him with legal action almost immediately after he published it. The messages also threatened him with the closure of his website, and with his being fired from his job at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. He said that a few days after the article briefly appeared, the leader of the official's tribe visited Naser's father to ask him to prevail on Naser to apologize in public. The editor said he refused to apologize, but instead offered the official the opportunity to deny the allegations on the website.
"They think I am the weak link in the fight against corruption because I don't have a political party behind me," Naser told CPJ.