BAGHDAD — The U.S. administration continues to tout Iraq as a shining example of democracy in the Middle East, but press freedom in Iraq has plummeted since the beginning of the occupation.
Repression of free speech in Iraq was extreme already under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The 2002 press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Iraq a dismal130th. The 2006 index pushes Iraq down to 154th position in a total of 168 listed countries, though still ahead of Pakistan, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, China and Iran. North Korea is at the bottom of the table.
The index ranks countries by how they treat their media, looking at the number of journalists who were murdered, threatened, had to flee or were jailed by the state.
The end of Saddam’s dictatorship had for a while brought hope of greater press freedom. More than 200 new newspapers and a dozen television channels opened. The hope did not last even weeks.
“We were overwhelmed by the change that accompanied what we thought was the liberation of our country,” journalist Said Ali who had earlier been arrested many times for criticising Saddam’s regime told IPS. “I was arrested then for criticising low-ranking officials, and that was why I did not stay in jail long. The change of system in 2003 brought me hope of a better situation, but it proved false.”
First, journalists began to face the danger of getting shot in the streets by nervous U.S. soldiers. Many journalists were killed in such firing. Later they began to face exile, arrest and bans on reporting after they began to expose abuses against Iraqi civilians. Journalists were targeted also for reporting the growing resistance to the occupation.
Order 65 of the “100 Orders” penned by former U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul Bremer established a communications and media commission. Under the order passed Mar. 20, 2004 the commission had complete control over licensing and regulating telecommunications, broadcasting, information services and all other media establishments.
On Jun. 28, 2004 when the United States supposedly handed power to a “sovereign” interim government, Bremer simply passed on the authority to U.S.-installed interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, who had longstanding ties with the CIA and the British intelligence service MI6. These orders have since been incorporated into the Iraqi constitution.
Within days of the “handover” of power to the interim Iraqi government, security forces raided and shut down the Baghdad office of al-Jazeera Arabic satellite channel.
The network was banned from reporting out of Iraq initially for a month, but the ban was then extended “indefinitely”, and remains in place today. In November 2004 the Iraqi government announced that any al-Jazeera journalist found reporting in Iraq would be detained.
Others were picked on too. “My friend Sophie-Anne Lamouf, a French journalist who was covering Fallujah events from her hotel in Baghdad was exiled,” an Iraqi journalist told IPS. “I could not believe going back to the dark ages was possible, but it is true.”
Other journalists say resistance groups and criminal gangs are the biggest threat today. Another threat to media workers has been abduction either for ransom or to draw international attention to the kidnappers’ cause.
“The worst thing that happens to a journalist in Iraq is the fighters’ opinion that some of us are CIA spies,” Iraqi journalist Maki al-Nazzal told IPS. “This would definitely lead to thorough investigations and sometimes has led to death.”
During the siege of Fallujah in April 2004, 12 foreign journalists reported freely and left safely. But the situation changed soon afterwards. Under truce negotiations during that siege, U.S. forces asked leaders of the city to expel al-Jazeera journalists as part of a cease-fire agreement.
In September this year, the Iraqi government shut down the Baghdad bureau of al-Jazeera’s competitor al-Arabiya. And on Jan. 1 this year, the Baghdad office of al-Sharqiya satellite channel which broadcasts from Dubai was ordered closed by the Iraqi government on grounds of “inciting sectarianism” following the Dec. 30 execution of Saddam Hussein. A news reader had appeared wearing black mourning clothes.
All non-Iraqi journalists now base themselves in well-protected hotels. For fear of resistance fighters, criminal gangs, the U.S. military or death squads, most never leave the hotels. When they do, they go “embedded” with the U.S. military.
According to the U.S. based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 92 journalists and 37 media support workers have been killed in Iraq since the occupation began in March 2003. Reporters Without Borders says at least 94 journalists and 45 media assistants have been killed since then.
Among the dead was IPS journalist Alaa Hassan who was shot and killed by armed men as he drove to work Jun. 28 this year.
Reporters Without Borders added that Iraq was one of the world’s worst marketplaces for hostages, with at least 38 journalists kidnapped in three years.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at least 14 journalists have been killed by the U.S. military. Many Arab media organisations say that number is far higher.
Death squads are now another growing threat to the media. The al-Shaabiya satellite channel bureau was attacked by death squads last year. The company chairman and many members of the staff were killed.
(Ali al-Fadhily is our Baghdad correspondent. Dahr Jamail is our specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years.)