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."

 

Turkish warplanes pound Kurdish forces in Iraq, Syria

US criticizes 1915 massacres in Armenia

Iran, major powers to review adherence to nuclear deal

Netanyahu cancels talks with German FM over NGO meetings

Young Iraqi innovator building home-made drones

Baghdad condemns Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish forces

IS executes Iraqi civilians in Mosul

Qatar World Cup workers receive random health checks

Libyan government calls for foreign intervention as fighting spreads

Tunisia parliament votes to ease harsh drug law

Nostalgia dominates Iraqi Ba’ath conference in Spain

Moroccans call on Le Pen voters to quit country

Turkey court rejects opposition challenge to referendum result

Spain arrests 4 for links to Belgium IS attacks

Iraq forces push towards UNESCO site in Hatra

Israel appoints country's first female sharia judge

Frontline clinic is window to hell of IS-held Mosul

Iraq forces retake west Mosul neighbourhood from IS

Iraqi Kurds lament ‘unacceptable’ Turkish air strikes

Khamenei urges Iran candidates to focus on home

UN chief urges donors to prevent Yemen famine

Yemen’s ‘march for bread’ protestors end week-long march

Jailed British-Iranian sees final appeal rejected in Tehran

Iran election may be pointer to race for supreme leader

US-backed forces enter key IS-held Syria town Tabqa

Israel probe clears officer who shot teen attackers

Syria ‘ready’ to halt fire for chemical attack probe

Israel charges teenager for bomb threats against Jewish institutions

Egypt sentences 20 to death over 2013 police killings

Erdogan accuses researcher of 'inciting assassination'

Qatar Airways CEO accuses US carriers of ‘bullying’

At least 15 migrants drown near Lesbos

Former employees work to salvage Mosul University

Jordan wary about jihadists wishing to return home

US fires opening shots in confrontation with Iran

Mattis sees Saudi Arabia ‘helping across the region’

Sirens, silence as Israel remembers Holocaust

Houthis intensify crackdown on dissent in Yemen

Italian reporter released in Turkey

Algiers summons Morocco envoy over Syrian migrant row

Macron, Le Pen gird for final French election duel

Iran reverses decision to ban live presidential debates

Six Israelis including two soldiers held for anti-Arab attacks

Economists, rights advocates concerned over Egypt’s state of emergency

US Defense Secretary Mattis visits strategic Djibouti