A demonstrator distributes a newspaper in Baghdad, Iraq, on November 17, 2019. A journalist was recently abducted and a broadcaster's office attacked amid the demonstrations. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)
A demonstrator distributes a newspaper in Baghdad, Iraq, on November 17, 2019. A journalist was recently abducted and a broadcaster's office attacked amid the demonstrations. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

Journalist temporarily abducted, TV office attacked amid protests in Iraq

Beirut, November 20, 2019 — Iraqi authorities should conduct swift and transparent investigations into the temporary abduction of journalist Mohammad Qahtan al-Shamari and the attack on the Al-Arabi TV offices in Baghdad, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

In separate incidents on November 17, unidentified individuals fired rocket propelled grenades at the Baghdad office of Al-Arabi TV, a London-based broadcaster, and gunmen abducted al-Shamari, a reporter for the state-run Iraq News Agency and the news website Baghdad Today, in the southern city of Al-Diwaniyah, according to news reports, broadcast interviews with those affected, and posts on social media.

Al-Shamari was released on November 18, according to news reports and a post on Facebook by the journalist.

The incidents came amid protests over unemployment, a lack of basic services, and government corruption that began in Iraq in early October, according to news reports.

“Iraqi authorities must ensure journalists’ safety, and widespread protests are not an excuse for failing to thoroughly investigate attacks on the press,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “The individuals or groups behind the recent abduction of Mohammad Qahtan al-Shamari and the rocket attack on Al-Arabi TV must be held to account.”

Tareq Maher, a Baghdad-based reporter for Al-Arabi TV, said in an interview with the broadcaster that he was in the building when it was hit by the rockets.

“Our broadcast engineer Hassan, who was standing next to one of the windows that was shattered by the explosion, was hit in his body by shrapnel and taken to hospital,” Maher said. “Also, a passerby who was riding a motorcycle was injured.”

The explosions damaged the broadcaster’s office and a car that was parked near its entrance, Maher said.

Maher was also cited by the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq, a local nongovernmental group, as saying that Iraqi security forces told him the rockets were fired from within Baghdad, and said security forces were investigating the exact area from which they were fired.

Separately on November 17, in Al-Diwaniyah, unidentified gunmen intercepted a taxi carrying al-Shamari and took him to an undisclosed location, according to local news website NAS News.

Local journalist Isa’a al-Kaabi, a friend of al-Shamari’s, told NAS News that the journalist’s brother went to the police station to report his disappearance after calling al-Shamari but finding that his phone had been turned off.

Al-Shamari was released the following day, and plans to identify his kidnappers at a later date, according to news reports.

Prior to his abduction, al-Shamari had received death threats on the phone from unknown numbers and from individuals driving a car without license plates, who drove next to al-Shamari’s car and threatened him, according to NAS News and a statement by the National Union of Journalists in Iraq, a local trade group. The threats related to al-Shamari’s coverage of the protests and of alleged corruption, according to that statement.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry and al-Diwaniyah police command did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

Since protests broke out in Iraq, militiamen have abducted a blogger, security forces have beaten and obstructed journalists covering demonstrations, and unidentified assailants raided the Baghdad offices of at least four broadcasters, according to CPJ reporting.