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"Free Iraq" Criminalizes Criticism, Ridicule of Government
BAGHDAD — Ahmed al-Karbouli, a reporter for Baghdadiya TV in the violent city of Ramadi, did his best to ignore the death threats, right up until six armed men drilled him with bullets after midday prayers.
He was the fourth journalist killed in Iraq in September alone, out of a total of more than 130 since the 2003 invasion, the vast majority of them Iraqis. But these days, men with guns are not Iraqi reporters’ only threat. Men with gavels are, too.
Under a broad new set of laws criminalizing speech that ridicules the government or its officials, some resurrected verbatim from Saddam Hussein’s penal code, roughly a dozen Iraqi journalists have been charged with offending public officials in the past year.
Currently, three journalists for a small newspaper in southeastern Iraq are being tried here for articles last year that accused a provincial governor, local judges and police officials of corruption. The journalists are accused of violating Paragraph 226 of the penal code, which makes anyone who “publicly insults” the government or public officials subject to up to seven years in prison.
On Sept. 7, the police sealed the offices of Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite news channel, for what the government said was inflammatory reporting. And the Committee to Protect Journalists says that at least three Iraqi journalists have served time in prison for writing articles deemed criminally offensive.
The office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has lately refused to speak with news organizations that report on sectarian violence in ways that the government considers inflammatory; some outlets have been shut down.
In addition to coping with government pressures, dozens of Iraqi journalists have been kidnapped by criminal gangs or detained by the American military, on suspicion that they are helping Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias. One, Bilal Hussein, who photographed insurgents in Anbar Province for The Associated Press, has been in American custody without charges since April.
And all Iraqi journalists have to live with the fear of death, which often dictates extreme security measures. Abdel Karim Hamadie, the news manager for Al Iraqiya Television, said he sometimes went months without leaving the station’s compound.
“The last time I went home was three weeks ago,” he said, showing off a small room adjacent to his office where he sleeps each night. “Before that, I spent three months at work. I used to hit my chair because I was so angry. But then I got a new chair.”
American diplomats here say they admire the dedication of Iraqi reporters in covering the war and the government’s efforts to create a democracy.
“Journalists here work under very, very difficult conditions,” said a United States Embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are taking fire from every direction. They’ve got the defamation law hanging over their heads. They’ve got their political opponents gunning for them. They are trying very hard, and we want to encourage them.”
Under Mr. Hussein, reporters and editors were licensed and carefully watched. Even typewriters had to be registered with the government. During that time, some reporters got by on the conviction that their articles, about the government’s glorious new water projects or certain victory in the war with Iran, were at least patriotic.
“I never praised Saddam himself, never,” said Shihab al-Tamimi, 73, who runs the Iraqi Journalists Union from a battered old mansion here. “But I praised the project, for the good of the country.”
Now, Iraqi journalists still operate with considerable freedoms, at least compared with those in Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries, and many Iraqis have achieved a new level of professionalism by working closely with Western journalists. So despite the growing government pressure, the news media have become increasingly aggressive.
Ethical boundaries, though, often remain murky. It was disclosed last year that the Lincoln Group, an American public relations firm hired by the Pentagon, paid Iraqi news outlets to print positive articles on the American presence here and provided stipends to Iraqi journalists in exchange for favorable treatment.
Even though the Iraqi news media have made strides, the journalists themselves are being killed at an extraordinary rate.
Since the Iraq war began, more than 130 journalists — most of them Iraqi — have been fatally shot, beaten or tortured to death, according to the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, the most prominent domestic advocacy group for journalists to emerge since the invasion. (The Committee to Protect Journalists, which requires more evidence to verify reported killings, lists 79 journalists and 28 news workers.)
Most of the victims — reporters, photographers and editors — were working for local newspapers and television stations.
“Don’t be surprised if you wake up one day to find that I have also been killed,” said Habib al-Sadr, the chief executive of the government-financed Iraqi Media Network, the nation’s largest media organization. In the network’s office lobby, a display case holds the photographs of 13 reporters and editors killed on the job since 2003, including Amjad Hameed, the head of the network’s television channel, Al Iraqiya.
“The road to democracy is not smoothly paved,” Mr. Sadr said during a recent interview in his office, cigarette smoke curling around his face. “It is filled with bombs.”
Despite the danger, Falah al-Mishaal, the editor of Al Sabah, the government-run newspaper in Baghdad, said he enjoyed his job now because he felt like a real journalist.
“Now, we are free,” he said in an interview in late July. “We can write whatever we want.”
Three weeks after the interview, a man drove a minibus filled with explosives into Al Sabah’s rear parking lot and blew it up, killing two people and wounding 20 others.
September has been particularly deadly for journalists.
Safa Ismael Enad, a freelance news photographer, was buying film at his favorite print shop in eastern Baghdad on Sept. 13 when two men with guns walked in, fired two shots into his chest and dragged his bleeding body away.
Three days earlier, gunmen blocked Abdul-Kareem al-Rubaie, a designer for Al Sabah, as he traveled to work one sunny morning, and they shot him through the windshield. Last month, Mohammad Abbas Mohammad, a newspaper editor, was shot to death in western Baghdad, and Ismail Amin Ali, a blunt-spoken columnist, was killed on the street across town on the same day.
The disdain for truly free expression cuts across sectarian lines. The men who killed Mr. Karbouli after warning him to stop his critical reporting on the insurgency were almost certainly Sunni. The former governor of Wasit Province, and the judges and police officials who brought charges against the three journalists for questioning their ethics, were all Shiites.
In April, Mastura Mahmood, a young journalist for the women’s weekly paper Rewan, was charged with defamation for an article that quoted an anti-government demonstrator in Halabja comparing the Iraqi police there with the Baathists who once ran the country. She was arrested and then released on bail.
In May, a court in Sulaimaniya, in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, sentenced two journalists, Twana Osman and Asos Hardi, to six-month suspended jail terms for an article claiming that a Kurdish official had two telephone company employees fired after they cut his phone service for failing to pay his bill.
“These cases show that Iraqi officials are quick to use the same kinds of onerous legal tools as their neighbors to punish outspoken media,” said Joel Campagna, the Middle East program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Last month, more than 70 news organizations signed a nine-point pledge supporting the national reconciliation plan of Prime Minister Maliki, promising not to use inflammatory statements or images of people killed in attacks, and vowing to “disseminate news in a way that harmonizes with Iraq’s interests.” Days later, the police barred journalists from photographing corpses at the scenes of bombings and mortar attacks. Since then, policemen have smashed several photographers’ cameras and digital memory cards.
At Al Arabiya, the Baghdad station shuttered by the Iraqi authorities earlier this month, the studio door handle is sealed in red wax and bound in police tape. (The door is adorned with a photo of Atwar Bahjat, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in Samarra in February while reporting on the bombing of a Shiite shrine.)
Some news executives express support for Al Arabiya’s closing.
“It is the right of the Iraqi government,
as it combats terrorism, to silence any voice that tries to harm the national
unity,” said Mr. Sadr, of the Iraqi Media Network.