POMED Notes: The Legal Enabling Environment for Independent Media in Iraq
On Thursday, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the Middle Eastand North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) hosted a roundtable discussion on the recent legislation adopted by the Iraqi government on the media restricting the freedom of expression after years of experiencing media freedom after the fall of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The panel featured Oday Hatem Iraqi journalist and president of the Society for Defending Press Freedom organization, Lisa Kovack program officer for IREX’s media development division, Andrea Lemieux program implementation coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and Asos Hardi from Awene Press & Publishing Company. The discussion was moderated by Rahman Aljebouri, senior program officer for the Middle East andNorth Africa program at NED.
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Lisa Kovack said that under Hussein’s regime, the freedom of expression was extremely restrictive. Its fall was associated to enthusiasm from the supporters of freedom of expression and their belief that Iraq would become a leader in the region in term of free media and open government. In a short time, the media scene became the most diverse and dynamic in the Middle East, “partly because the government was incapable to restrict it but also because Iraqis were hungry for uncensored information” said Kovack. However it was a short period, as the Iraqi government quickly tried to control the media. Now the Iraqi media landscape is pluralistic but not free. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the 2005 Constitution but there is no guarantee that a journalist can cover a story without suffering severe consequences. In a time of Arab Spring, when citizens are demanding for increase of participation and increase of freedom of expression across the region, “it is striking to see how little changed in Iraqi media law” according to the speaker. Current laws are similar to media under an authoritarian regime. Saddam Hussein’s laws on media of 1968 and 1969 “remained in the books,” which criminalized journalist, with heavy fines and imprisonment, spreading false news, defamation or for insulting the government. The government adopted laws in 2004 and 2005, not leading to an encouraging move. One of the laws was used to shot media outlets accused for promoting civil disorders or raising critics against the government. Movements have arisen calling for the drafting of new laws but “they are not leading in a positive direction regarding the freedom of expression and the freedom of media.” They over legislate and define loosely freedoms which let space for abuses interpretations. The ‘journalist protection law’ passed in August 2011, “seemed on the surface very well intentioned” and appeared as a response to direct attacks against journalists. Kovack recommended that the sources of journalists should be more protected, such as freedom of speech. Kovack concluded that there are some good laws in the book but it does not mean that the rights will be upheld. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki operates as a democratic leader but it is increasingly only apparent, he is controlling the political power and the control over media. So far, there is no will to change these laws but Kovack asserted that it was the role of NGOs to advocate for their improvement.
Oday Hatem reminded to the audience that the fall of Saddam Hussein was followed by the creation of newspapers, new radio stations and TV channels, “it was a dream for a journalist who lived under a dictatorship to enjoy such a freedom.” After 2008, began systematic crackdowns on media and freedom of press. The real threat on freedom of media was associated to the law “rights of journalists’ as it sent back journalist to the same status that under Saddam Hussein. The law combines former laws adopted in 1968, which asked journalists to sign an agreement with the government for publishing anything and the 1969 law that impose journalists to publish articles in favor of the regime. The 2009 law proposed by the Ministry of information gives authority to restrict media and confiscate publishing means. The Rights of Journalists’ law guarantees the protection of the journalists and of his sources, but in reality it is not the case. According to Hatem, this last law violates the constitution and contravenes several international agreements that the government signed. The law violates freedom of expression and of demonstration, as any assembly of more than seven people is forbidden. The law on information crime restricts the possibility for journalists to criticize the government, notably regarding pollution issues. There is currently a law being drafted on the “Media Authority” which gives great authority for the government to extend its control over media.
Andrea Lemieux gave examples of how the law on media interferes with freedom of expression. She argues that since the Rights of journalists law was passed, more that 200 journalists have been attacked, more than 30 were detained and there equipment was confiscated, twelve were beaten by security forces and nine media outlets closed. In 2011, six journalists died. The current laws criminalized journalists and online publishing for “harming the country reputation” and disseminate critics on government. The laws restrict publishable content by not clearly defining “what is public and social morality?” which can impose censorship. Lemieux believes that there are some indicators proving that the media landscape can improve. The media and publication court “had kicked out all cases against journalists.”
Asos Hardi said that the proliferation of the media began in 1991, mostly after the Iraqi troops left the Kurdistan region in 1992. At the beginning all the media outlets were linked to political parties. It is only in 2000, with the release of an independent newspaper, that Kurdistan could enjoy a beginning of an independent press. In 2007, the Kurdistan parliament adopted a law to erase all the former Iraqi ones. The law mentioned that no journalists could be jailed by virtue being a journalist and facilitated the process to found a newspaper. However the law also stated that if a journalist could not pay a fine after a judgment, he could be jailed. The freedom of expression for a journalist can still be restricted for religious reasons or for spreading social disorder. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan laws only focus on press media, so all the topics concerning the other outlets media, judges had to refer to Iraqis laws. He noticed that attacks on journalists increased recently, and interpreted it as a positive sign of the increasing independence of the media and that they were becoming more influential.
During the Q&A, the first question concerned the needs of the journalists nowadays in Iraq. The speakers said that support from the international community to increase pressure on the government would help them to reach more freedom of expression. They also require professional training. During the Q&A, one of the speakers asserted that religious issues interfere with freedom of expression and that Iraq was becoming a “religious dictatorship.” Andrea Lemieux stated that the precarious situation of the journalist was also because of the weakness of the judiciary system than cannot properly defend the journalists.