Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2011 Bad Year For Journalists In Iraq

Reporters Without Borders released its World Press Freedom Index for 2011-2012. In it, Iraq dropped 22 places to 152 out of 179 countries in freedom of the media. This report was the latest bad news for Iraq’s journalists who faced a barrage of attacks by the security forces in the first half of the year as they attempted to cover the protests that broke out across the country. Reporters were killed, arrested, and their offices were raided, and burned down during the year. That shows that Iraq still has a ways to go to become a full democracy where reporters can act freely without fear of reprisal by the authorities.

Iraq took a large drop in the standings in the World Press Freedom Index. It went from 130 in 2010-2011 to number 152 in 2011-2012. That put it close to what it was in 2008 when it had a ranking of 168. The major reason for the decline was attacks upon journalists during the protests that occurred in Iraq during the first half of the year. Journalists were routinely targeted by the security forces when covering demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and in Sulaymaniya along with other parts of the country. A famous case was radio host Hadi al-Mahdi. He was originally arrested on February 25, 2011, Iraq’s Day of Rage. He was having lunch with three other journalists at a café after attending the day’s demonstration. 15 soldiers picked him and his friends up, took him to the headquarters of the 11th Army Division, interrogated him, beat him, electrocuted him, and threatened him with rape. He and his colleagues were all eventually released. Mahdi continued on as a critic of the government and attending rallies in Baghdad. He started getting death threats to stop, and was eventually killed in his home on September 8. The authorities were widely believed to be behind his death. It was attacks and deaths like these that Reports Without Borders marked Iraq down for.
Journalist Haid al-Mahdi at his Radio Demozy before his death in Sep. 2011 (New York Times)
International human rights organizations and Iraqi media groups noted a similar pattern of violence against journalists in Iraq in 2011. In April 2011 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both released reports about Iraq’s protest movement. Amnesty noted that the Iraqi security forces raided the Baghdad offices of Al-Diyar TV station, stopping it from covering the demonstrations, and arresting seven staff members. In Karbala, a Reuters' reporter was beaten and hospitalized by the police. A Radio Sawa journalist in Mosul was also attacked, and stopped from covering the day’s events there as well. Human Rights Watch had similar examples, such as interviewing 20 Iraqi reporters who all said they had been intimidated, harassed, received death threats, been arrested and beaten, or had their equipment taken. It also noted that the Kurdish press group Metro Center documented 150 cases of attacks and harassment upon Kurdish journalists by the security forces from February to May as they were covering the protest movement in Sulaymaniya. That would be the focus of a May report by the group that noted that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was committing massive media abuses. The regional government had filed lawsuits, and used beatings, arrests, and death threats in an attempt to limit the coverage of the demonstrations. Finally, in its World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch said that the situation within Iraq was poor due in part to a government crackdown on the media. Within the country, the Metro Center for Defense of Journalists in Kurdistan said there were 359 violations against the media in the region by the end of 2011. That included 85 beatings, 81 preventions of doing work, 57 threats, 52 arrests, 41 confiscations of equipment, 9 cases of destroyed equipment, 9 attacks on media offices, 9 shootings, 8 cases of offices being set on fire, 4 fire bombings, 2 shootings at TV channels, one case of planting a bomb at an office, and one burning of a journalist’s vehicle. Similarly, the Kurdistan Union of Journalists reported 277 cases of abuses against the media in the region for the year, 257 of which were during the demonstrations in Sulaymaniya that started in February. This showed a concerted effort by Baghdad and Irbil to stop the media from covering the protests that broke out at the beginning of the year. They did not want coverage of those events, nor for the news to spread to other parts of the country. Their choice of tactics was the use of force to intimidate the media into backing off.
A reporter being punched by a policeman while covering demonstrations in Basra 2011 (AP)
In terms of its neighbors, Iraq was right in the middle according to Reporters Without Borders, which is ironic, because it is one of the only democracies in the entire region. Out of the 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Iraq was number 18. Kuwait at 78, Israel and Lebanon at 93, were at the top, while Bahrain, 173, Iran, 175, and Syria, 176, were at the bottom. Israel and Lebanon are democracies so it should be no surprise that they ranked so high. Kuwait is still a monarchy, but obviously gives its media a lot of freedom. Palestine and Iraq are the only other countries with elected governments and they both fell in the middle of the pack at 133 and 152 respectively. Iraq obviously has a lot more work to do develop this part of its political culture, because it is the lowest ranked democracy in the region, and even behind eight countries that aren’t.  

Middle East/North Africa Rankings By Reporters Without Borders
1. Kuwait 78
2. Israel 93
2. Lebanon 93
4. UAE 112
5. Qatar 114
6. Oman tied 117
7. Algeria tied 122
8. Jordan 128
9. Palestine 133
10. Tunisia 134
11. Morocco 138
12. Iraq 152
13. Libya tied 154
14. Saudi Arabia 158
15. Egypt 166
16. Yemen 171
17. Bahrain 173
18. Iran 175
19. Syria 176

Iraq is one of only four democracies in the Middle East and North Africa, but the government did not seem to appreciate what that entailed in 2011. When faced with dissent, both the central and regional Kurdish governments resorted to using the security forces to carry out arbitrary arrests, secret attacks, beatings, and other abusive tactics against members of the media. This happened across the country, not just in Baghdad and Sulaymaniya. Allowing a free press is an essential part of developing a democratic society. Letting the public know what is going on in the country, so that it may make choices about its future politicians is an important ingredient in any elected form of government. It is no surprise that Iraq has been labeled a struggling democracy, because it does not have all of the liberties that one entails yet as shown in the events of 2011.


Agence France Presse, “Iraq’s protest movement: despondent and divided,” 1/31/12
Amnesty International, “Days Of Rage, Protests and Repression In Iraq,” April 2011

Arango, Tim, “Text Messages Proliferate as Threats in Iraq,” New York Times, 4/26/11

Aswat al-Iraq, “20 atrocities cases against journalists in Kurdistan registered – report,” 12/27/11
- “359 violation cases against journalists reported in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region in 2011,” 1/14/12
- “Feb. 25th – Bad Day for freedom of press and democracy in Iraq:,” 2/26/11

BNO News, “Over 160 attacks against Iraqi journalists, media institutions in two weeks,” 3/10/11

Human Rights Watch, “Iraq Widening Crackdown on Protests,” 4/21/11
- “Iraqi Kurdistan: Growing Effort to Silence Media,” 5/24/11
- “World Report 2012,” 1/22/12

Al-Jourani, Flaiyeh, “Violence against journalists soars in some Iraqi provinces,” AK News, 4/6/11

Al-Mandalawi, Bashar, “Attacks on journalists up 55%,” AK News, 5/3/11

National Iraqi News Agency, “Demonstrators in Baghdad urges government to force Kuwait not to build Mubarak sea-port,” 7/29/11

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraqi Journalists Press Charges Over Assault At Protest,” 3/9/11

Reporters Without Borders, “World Press Freedom Index 2011-2012,” 1/25/12

Shelton, Tracey, “”The Other Iraq” not so free after all,” Global Post, 5/29/11

Van Heuvelen, Ben, “The Man Who Would Be King,” Foreign Policy, 6/13/11

Van Wilgenburg, Wladimir, “HRW: Kurdish Government Not Better Than Saddam Hussein’s,” Rudaw, 5/28/11

Al-Yousef, Murtadha, “Journalist detained at Baghdad protest,” AK News, 7/24/11

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