In Iraq, press freedom takes a step backward

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Last week, Iraqi security forces arrested two employees of Baghdadiya, a major television network, accused them of working with terrorists to shut down the station’s power.

Security officials said the blackout was because the station aired terrorist demands during a militant siege on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on Oct. 31, during which 58 people were killed. The siege was the first in a series of attacks by an affiliate of Al Qaeda that appears to be attempting to re-ignite sectarian violence in the country.

But media watchdogs said the action was more likely taken in response to the station’s programming, which had at times been critical, or satirical, of the Iraqi government.

The move by security forces is an ominous sign for the country’s press, which, for the first time in decades had been enjoying relative freedom.

The country had been humming with news outlets. From local television channels reporting on local issues like tree-plantings to the country’s first photo wire service — which photographed the funerals of those buried in mass graves — Iraqi journalists were building a spirited media scene.

Ziad al Jillily, head of Iraq’s Journalistic Freedom Observatory, said that freedom of speech and journalism were the sole benefit of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

“[Iraqis] still have no services, no good economy and still don’t have the simplest daily needs. The only thing they got was freedom of speech. That’s all,” he said.

Under Saddam Hussein, a free press was forbidden. And among the institutions set up after the invasion in 2003 were television channels and newspapers that were the brainchild of, and initially controlled by, the Pentagon.

The media here is now freer than Syria’s or Iran’s and less partisan than, say, Lebanon, where most of the media outlets are owned or controlled by politicians of various stripes. Basking in this freedom, both news and entertainment programs regularly push the boundaries.

In an Iraqi version of "Punk’d," for example, which aired on Baghdadiya, actors played pranks on celebrities that often involved fake car bombs, checkpoint harassment and live bullets.

As the celebrities screamed and fainted on screen, and readers complained, Punk’d Baghdad-style might not have been a good idea. But it did come from a lively, growing culture of media freedom.

The flourishing media scene existed in stark contrast to the last seven years, when international armies battled an insurgency and Sunni and Shiite militias battled each other.

Militia groups who ruled Iraq during the worst years of sectarian violence saw a free press as a Western imposition and targeted both Iraqi and foreign journalists, spooking an industry that took great risks to kick start it’s newfound liberty from government intervention.

Although the grip of extremists might not be as strong today, it is still often a deadly one. And now, increasingly autocratic behavior on behalf of security forces and government officials is threatening to derail any progress made.

Two journalists were shot dead by gunmen in September, one a prominent presenter on the major al-Iraqiya news channel, and one a correspondent for a local television station in the volatile northern city of Mosul.

Their deaths came as Reporters without Borders revealed that at least 230 media workers had been killed in Iraq since the American invasion. The report said two-thirds of those killed were deliberately targeted because of their work.

Soazig Dollet, the author of the report, said press freedom in Iraq had improved beyond measure since 2003, but that the costs had been high, and that Iraqi authorities were not trying hard enough to address remaining problems.

“Only 1 percent of cases have been investigated,” she said.

Iraqi security forces, meanwhile, are beginning to fall back into old habits, she said, using intimidation, violence and arrests to prevent journalists from reporting on sensitive subjects.

The shuttering of Baghdadiya is just the latest example.

One Iraqi journalist, one among hundreds that worked with Western news agencies in Baghdad, has worked in media for years, but tells no one in his neighborhood about it.

“If they knew, I would be a target for militias, for Al Qaeda, and even for Iraqi security forces,” he said, refusing to give his name for safety reasons.

Intimidation of reporters also extends to the more peaceful Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where the notoriously anti-government journalist, Zardasht Osman, 23, was kidnapped and killed earlier this year. His family and friends have blamed security forces for his death.

Khidher Domle, a journalist in the Kurdish region, said that police are able to impose constraints on journalists because no clear legislation existed to protect them.

Jillily said that journalists have increasingly found their access curtailed by Saddam-era laws that remain on the books. A journalist was arrested in the southern city of Kut earlier this year, he said, for publishing an article criticizing the judicial system, and was only released after he denied that he had written it.

“There are many people trying to bring back the times of dictatorship to Iraq,” he said, “…you can’t expect a government that has politicians who are deeply corrupted to give freedom for journalists.”