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Iraq: The miserable reality of freedoms in one of the deadliest countries for journalists

Iraq: The miserable reality of freedoms in one of the deadliest countries for journalists

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Life Freedom of Expression

Thursday 15 December 202204:21 pm
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واقع الحريات المزري في العراق... قانون جديد لبلوغ الدِرك الأسفل

Under a dim yellow light, inside a black room, lies his beaten and bloodied body. This time, the session lasted three hours and included all sorts of beatings and torture, with no idea what he was accused of, and also without knowing the identity of his torturers/captors.

It may look like a scene from a movie or drama series that are broadcast on television all the time, but it is a true story — one that Raed (pseudonym) went through. Raed, a journalist from Baghdad, was kidnapped by unknown assailants from his home on the night of June 23, without any explanation.

"I cannot forget the date, no can I forget the torture," Raed says as he recounts his story to Raseef22. "I was scrolling through my phone as usual in the evening, looking for news or events, but I didn't realize that I would become the story myself."

That night, a force in military uniforms raided his house, but their clothes were devoid of any indication of what side or party they belong to. They broke down the outer door and entered by force to arrest him, without explaining the reasons. He says, "They took me to my nameless prison, and from the moment I arrived they began punching me in the face, kicking me in sensitive areas, putting out cigarette butts on my body, and directing insults and threats at me, without asking any question that could justify their brutal practices. All they cared about was torturing me."

The Press Freedom Advocacy Association recorded more than 233 violations in 2021 alone, and around 139 cases of assault

After satisfying their sadistic tendencies, they threw him near the door of his house, leaving him unable to move and suffering from broken ribs, a broken leg, a broken hand, and a brain concussion. Immediately after splinting his broken hand, his family first sent him to the Kurdistan region to finish his treatment, and then he left the country. Despite this, he still lives in terror, plagued by his dark memories and the pain of his constant fear for his family, which still resides in Iraq.

Raed asserts that his journalistic activities and the criticism that his work has carried against some parties were the reason for being targeted. Stories such as this one have been experienced by many Iraqi journalists as part of the ongoing violations against them.

Years of restriction

Iraq is classified among the most dangerous countries for journalists, since many of them have lived through experiences similar to Raed's, even if they have not spoken out about them. These incidents have become so common that they're now considered an integral part of their dangerous profession, and include violations against journalists and activists, as well as threats, armed pursuit, and detention without justification. According to the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in its statement published on December 26, it recorded more than 233 violations in 2021 alone, and around 139 cases of assault, beatings, and preventing and obstructing press coverage, along with 34 cases of arrest and detention, among other repressive practices.

Not only that, but also about 500 journalists have also been killed since 2003, according to the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, a number whose accuracy is questioned by many, including the Syndicate, according to press statements. The skepticism is usually over the unaccounted numbers of those whose real cause of his death has not been disclosed, in addition to many missing journalists, whose fate remains unknown to this day.

Fingers of accusation are often pointed at armed groups close to political parties, which makes the latter implicated in these violations in one way or another, as part of their attempts to suppress voices opposing their policies or reveal details affecting their work and activities inside the country.

All these figures have made Iraq quite deserving of being ranked number 172 out of 180 countries, in the 2022 edition of Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, a significant decline from last year, where it used to rank 163rd.

"Accused of the crime of being a citizen journalist"

"They kept me for two days in the interrogation room, without letting me know what I was being accused of," says journalist Mohammed al-Tamimi, from Baghdad province, after he was arrested by a local police force last August as he left Tahrir Square, the center of the popular protests at the time.

"They took me to my nameless prison and immediately began punching my face, kicking me in sensitive areas, putting out cigarettes on my body, insulting, and threatening me without justifying their brutal practices. All they cared about was torturing me"

Mohammed, a freelance journalist who graduated from the Faculty of Mass Communication, had worked on covering the events of the demonstrations that took place in the region at the time, using his personal pages on social media, in an attempt to gain journalistic experience. However the horror he experienced in detention was enough to end his career before it had even begun.

Mohammed did not face any charges either, and his detainees only confiscated his phone and personal camera, which prompted him to tell Raseef22, "Iraq is not suitable for this profession. The government has successfully wasted my academic efforts and all my hard work, and was able to keep me away from media. They don't want the presence of the press or freedom of expression in the first place."

Restrictions on freedoms

This is despite the fact that the Journalist Protection Law No. 21 of 2011 stipulates in its 9th article that "anyone who assaults a journalist in the course of performing of his professional because of it, shall be punished by the same penalty prescribed for anyone who assaults an employee while on or because of the performance of his job." The article explicitly states that attacking journalists is tantamount to attacking public servants in the course of their duties.

According to article 226 of the Penal Code, it is punishable by three years in prison as a preliminary sentence, up to the death penalty in the case of murder. However negligence in implementing the law based on private agendas places the government under accusation of colluding in the harassment of journalists.

Successive Iraqi governments have condoned repeated attacks against journalists, but apply the law to them, and this complacency, negligence, and failure to take measures to reduce impunity against journalists and activists has prompted the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) to call for the referral of the issue of crimes targeting journalists in Iraq to the International Criminal Court, as they are war crimes, in its statement published in early November.

The same article numbered 226, which is stipulated in the Iraqi Penal Code, was used to sentence activist Haidar al-Zaidi

For example, the same article No. 226, stipulated in the Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969, was used to sentence activist Haider al-Zaidi to three years in prison on December 5 on charges of contempt for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

A law subject to mood

Al-Zaidi was arrested on June 6, 2022, on charges of insulting the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), after he published several posts on his personal social media pages about Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in a US airstrike near Baghdad Airport on January 3, 2020, and called him an agent.

Despite the confusion arising on the basis of the accusation, it explicitly contradicts the principle of freedom of expression, and as a result, demonstrations denouncing the rule began in Baghdad Governorate, in addition to Najaf and Diwaniyah, in light of calls for another protest demanding his release.

Article 226 states that "Whoever publicly insults the National Assembly, the government, the courts, the armed forces or other statutory bodies, public authorities, official departments, or semi-official departments shall be punished with imprisonment for a period not exceeding seven years, or with a fine."

Despite the criticisms directed at the Penal Code, it is still in force, but it seems that there are attempts to circumvent this law, with a new law that abolishes the status of the former regime, but carries the same contents, and is part of the efforts of some parties to repel the attacks of their critics through the law, after taking control of the state.

A new law, a new crisis

Today, Journalists and activists are faced with a new law that may erase the last remaining loophole protecting their freedom, after the Iraqi parliament completed the first reading of the Freedoms Law, a law that was included in the parliament session held on December 3.

The current law has been met with widespread controversy in Iraqi society, due to the successive contradictions it contains. A source who previously worked in the media office of the Prime Minister during Adel Abdul Mahdi’s ministry, says that "the insistence of the government and parties on this law falls within the category of their attempts to circumvent international public opinion and suggest the legislation of laws in the field of freedoms, which contribute to keeping Iraq away from the bottom of the list of press freedoms."

While speaking to Raseef22, he adds, "The law should not have been allowed to be leaked to the media, to ensure that it was passed without any popular opposition".

The Iraqi parliament is moving to pass a law that limits freedoms and gives the security apparatus a free pass to prosecute activists. Who stands behind it and who benefits from the suppression of freedoms in a country drowning in corruption?

The new law includes many provisions, including the state's right to withhold some information, but the biggest controversy falls within the field of expression of opinion and freedom of demonstration. The head of the Iraq Center for Human Rights, Ali al-Abadi, says, "This law will eliminate the remaining freedoms in Iraq, with regard to the need to obtain the government's approval to demonstrate, determine the times of protests, and impose fines for violating its laws."

He goes on to tell Raseef22, "These laws are contrary to logic, especially since they will be restricted by the approval of parties that may be concerned with demonstrations or are corrupt and subject to criticism. The stance against this law does not mean supporting chaos or disorder, especially since the state is basically the people, but rather the special situation that the country is going through, and the existence of priorities that need to be resolved now, such as exposing those who’ve killed demonstrators, and financial corruption. All this is more worthy of study than the current law".

Abadi points out that "there are partisan interferences behind this law, through which they want to eliminate the remaining voice of reform, as part of their attempts to stay in power, and the solution lies in organizing protest vigils and the intervention of the UN mission and international organizations in order to discourage parliament from passing it."

36 MPs had signed a petition calling for the law to be withdrawn for amendments, given its violation of the principles of human rights and public freedoms enshrined in the constitution.

There are strong indications that the law will be excluded from the sessions of the House of Representatives in the current period, but it will not stay far away for long. It may return after the wave of anger has subsided, to conclude the end of freedom of the press and expression at the same time. But even if it is not passed, the barrels of guns are still pointed at the heads of anyone who opposes, in a country where peace and freedom no longer have meaning.

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