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."

 

Saudi warns of 'disastrous consequences' over US 9/11 law

3,800 Syrian civilians killed by Russian strikes in one year

World leaders attend Shimon Peres’ funeral

UN warns 100,000 people trapped in South Sudan town

Bulgaria approves full-face Islamic veil ban

Jordanians rally against gas deal with Israel

Israel pays Turkey $20 million compensation for Gaza flotilla raid

Egypt MP suggests university virginity tests

Morocco to speed repatriation of citizens in Germany illegally

Turkey opposition leader condemns Erdogan’s ‘coup against democracy’

French jets set off to join action as battle for Mosul looms

Moroccan left hopes to offer 'third way' at polls

Renault signs Iran auto venture

Saudi border guard killed, 3 civilians hurt by shelling from Yemen

Turkey issues warrants for judicial, prison staff

MSF warns Syria, Russia to stop ‘bloodbath’ in Aleppo

Russia waiting to see OPEC freeze deal details

Police raid Casablanca market after rumours of sex dolls

UN warns 700,000 will need aid once Mosul offensive starts

Saudi seeks oil leadership in economic pinch

Egypt court suspends block on island transfer to Saudi

Bid for international Yemen war probe fails at UN

UN warns 'hundreds' in Aleppo need medical evacuation

Palestinian president to attend Peres funeral

King Abdullah visits home of murdered writer

Amnesty accuses Sudan of using chemical arms against Darfur civilians

Bahrain says 9/11 bill will harm US

9/11 bill puts US, Saudi cooperation in question

UN envoy says Syria talks 'very difficult with bombs falling'

Erdogan says Moody's was 'bought' after downgrade

Erdogan: Turkey may need state of emergency for more than a year

Iraqi activist wins Norway rights prize

Kidnapped German woman, baby freed in Syria

Turkey stops Kurdish TV broadcasts

A year of bombing in Syria triggers limited interest in Russia

Obama defends refusal to use military force to end Syria civil war

US Congress overrides Obama's veto of Saudi 9/11 bill

OPEC agrees deal to cut oil output

Palestinians react to death of Peres

Poverty takes toll in rebel-held Yemen fishing village

Kerry threatens to end negotiations with Russia on Syria

Kuwaiti court scraps petrol price hike

Iraq requests more US troops to take on IS in Mosul

Airstrikes hit hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo

Iran nuclear chief says not worried about Trump