First Published: 2012-09-05

 

Iraq press freedom in jeopardy

 

A year after murder of prominent Iraq journalist, bevy of new laws, bills threatens to limit freedom of expression.

 

Middle East Online

By Prashant Rao - BAGHDAD

One year after a prominent Iraqi journalist and government critic was killed, no one has been arrested for his murder and activists and analysts say press freedoms have, if anything, worsened.

Hadi al-Mehdi died of a single gunshot wound to the head on September 8, 2011, a day before planned nationwide rallies he was involved in organising against poor basic services and rampant corruption.

Many blamed the authorities for Mehdi's death -- a charge officials denied, pledging a special investigation.

But as the months passed no arrest has been made, and no inquiry results have been made public.

Mehdi's friends and supporters insist he has not been forgotten, with the radio station he worked at planning a special day of programming, and journalists and activists organising events and demonstrations in his memory this week.

"Hadi would say what people wanted to say but couldn't -- they didn't have his courage," said Karnas Ali, technical director at the Demozy radio station where Mehdi broadcast three 90-minute shows a week.

"His programme was the kind of work that makes enemies," Ali said.

"Whenever I read his comments, I would tell him he was writing a suicide note."

Mehdi's radio show, Ya Sameen al-Saut ("You, Who Can Hear This Voice"), was known for its sharp criticisms of official incompetence and corruption.

He was also a playwright, wrote for several publications and helped organise regular anti-government demonstrations.

At the biggest of those rallies in February 2011, Mehdi was among four Iraqi journalists detained by security forces, and alleged they subjected him to electrical shock treatment and repeated insults during interrogation.

His murder sparked a public outcry, drawing condemnation from rights groups and spurring dozens to the streets for his funeral, a march through central Baghdad carrying an empty coffin draped in an Iraqi flag.

Authorities have not published any findings from the promised inquiry, or announced any arrests. Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi declined to comment to AFP on the case.

"They are trying to catch air with a net," said Muayad al-Tayyib, using an Arabic phrase to allude to criticism that officials have not genuinely tried to find any of those responsible. Muayad, a 30-year-old journalist and friend of Mehdi, was among those who carried his "coffin" a year ago.

Rights groups and diplomats point to Mehdi's death, and the subsequent apparent lack of a comprehensive investigation, as one of many problems affecting journalism.

"Day by day, press freedom in Iraq is shrinking," said Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an Iraqi watchdog. "Those who say there is freedom of the press should talk to journalists on the ground."

Iraq ranks atop the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists' Impunity Index, with the CPJ saying there have been no convictions for the murders of journalists since 2003, when Saddam Hussein was ousted by a US-led invasion.

A bevy of new laws and bills also threatens to limit freedom of expression.

Along with what has been described by activists as a flawed Journalists Protection Law, currently being challenged in court by local rights groups, bills on Internet security, freedom of expression and political party organisation are being considered.

These include vague and poorly defined terminology, such as violating "public morals" or conveying "immoral messages," along with what analysts and diplomats call disproportionately harsh punishments.

"The combination of vague terms and extreme punishments outlined in these draft laws could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Iraq," one Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman Ali Mussawi has insisted that Iraqi journalists now "enjoy huge freedoms."

"Developments in the media, in all its forms, represent tremendous progress, and cannot be compared to the time of the former regime," Mussawi said of Saddam's rule.

In the year since Mehdi's death, Demozy has scaled back its coverage of politics and corruption because, as Ali noted, "we couldn't find a replacement for Hadi. We tried, and we are still trying."

The station suspended regular programming for two weeks after Mehdi's murder, instead airing passages from the Koran interspersed with condolences and discussions with his friends and other officials.

Ali and Tayyib both pointed to the fact that Mehdi had relatives in Denmark as proof that he could have left the country, but chose to stay.

"We lost a brave journalist, and me, I lost a friend, an educated man, a funny man with a big heart," said Ali.

"He came to a homeland lacking in services, lacking in respect for its citizens," he added. "He was a patriot."

 

Egypt court hands Al-Jazeera reporters three years in prison

Brief truce between Syria regime and rebels collapses

Deadly terrorist blast rocks Karanah suburb in Bahrain

Mounting death toll of security forces triggers questions in Turkey

Toll in Libya shipwreck tragedy rises to 111

Kurdish forces free seven Iraq villages from clasps of ISIS

UN to host new round of Libya peace talks next week

US names ‘First Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs’

Al-Qaeda lashes 10 in Yemen for blasphemy, alcohol

Turkey PM to form cabinet ahead of November polls

Iraq PM orders forces to prepare to open Green Zone

71 'Syrians' dead in Austria truck tragedy

UN conference on plight of minorities persecuted by IS

Spain judge accuses suspect of running IS Morocco network

Yemen army recruits 4,800 southern fighters

Israel to use agriculture to win friends in Africa

Syrian refugees desert Middle East for Europe

At least 76 die as boat sinks off Libya

UN pursues Syria chemical weapons probe

US says IS cyber jihadist killed in Syria strike

Iran premieres big-budget epic film 'Muhammad'

S.Sudan govt calls peace deal 'reward for rebellion'

Serbia, Macedonia urge EU action on migrants

South Sudan peace deal given cautious welcome

Two Iraqi generals in Anbar suicide bomb attack

IS seizes five villages from rebels in Syria's Aleppo

Syria regime, rebels agree new 48-hour truce for three towns

Shebab gunmen ambush Somali army convoy

Iraq PM plans to implement constitutional reform

Muslims not doing enough to fight IS: Queen Rania

Lebanon charges radical Islamist Al-Assir with 'terrorism'

Qaeda group blows up Yemen army HQ in Mukalla

Palestinian rivals agree ceasefire in Lebanon camp

New migrant tragedy in Mediterranean: 40 people dead, 2,000 in danger

Tehran's shoe-shine man in a red stiletto

Saudi King to meet Obama next month on first trip to US as monarch

Turkey PM invites pro-Kurdish MPs into caretaker cabinet

Car bomb attack kills Syria opposition commander in Turkey

Arab League postpones meeting on joint military force

Erdogan sends clear message to voters: It’s either AKP or instability!

South Sudan leader meets regional leaders ahead of peace deal

Saudi Arabia ‘holding’ key suspect in 1996 Khobar bombing

Israel releases second group of migrants from desert facility

US military may have skewed reports on progress against ISIS

Aid groups launch joint call to end Gaza blockade