First Published: 2012-09-05

 

Iraq press freedom in jeopardy

 

A year after murder of prominent Iraq journalist, bevy of new laws, bills threatens to limit freedom of expression.

 

Middle East Online

By Prashant Rao - BAGHDAD

One year after a prominent Iraqi journalist and government critic was killed, no one has been arrested for his murder and activists and analysts say press freedoms have, if anything, worsened.

Hadi al-Mehdi died of a single gunshot wound to the head on September 8, 2011, a day before planned nationwide rallies he was involved in organising against poor basic services and rampant corruption.

Many blamed the authorities for Mehdi's death -- a charge officials denied, pledging a special investigation.

But as the months passed no arrest has been made, and no inquiry results have been made public.

Mehdi's friends and supporters insist he has not been forgotten, with the radio station he worked at planning a special day of programming, and journalists and activists organising events and demonstrations in his memory this week.

"Hadi would say what people wanted to say but couldn't -- they didn't have his courage," said Karnas Ali, technical director at the Demozy radio station where Mehdi broadcast three 90-minute shows a week.

"His programme was the kind of work that makes enemies," Ali said.

"Whenever I read his comments, I would tell him he was writing a suicide note."

Mehdi's radio show, Ya Sameen al-Saut ("You, Who Can Hear This Voice"), was known for its sharp criticisms of official incompetence and corruption.

He was also a playwright, wrote for several publications and helped organise regular anti-government demonstrations.

At the biggest of those rallies in February 2011, Mehdi was among four Iraqi journalists detained by security forces, and alleged they subjected him to electrical shock treatment and repeated insults during interrogation.

His murder sparked a public outcry, drawing condemnation from rights groups and spurring dozens to the streets for his funeral, a march through central Baghdad carrying an empty coffin draped in an Iraqi flag.

Authorities have not published any findings from the promised inquiry, or announced any arrests. Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi declined to comment to AFP on the case.

"They are trying to catch air with a net," said Muayad al-Tayyib, using an Arabic phrase to allude to criticism that officials have not genuinely tried to find any of those responsible. Muayad, a 30-year-old journalist and friend of Mehdi, was among those who carried his "coffin" a year ago.

Rights groups and diplomats point to Mehdi's death, and the subsequent apparent lack of a comprehensive investigation, as one of many problems affecting journalism.

"Day by day, press freedom in Iraq is shrinking," said Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an Iraqi watchdog. "Those who say there is freedom of the press should talk to journalists on the ground."

Iraq ranks atop the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists' Impunity Index, with the CPJ saying there have been no convictions for the murders of journalists since 2003, when Saddam Hussein was ousted by a US-led invasion.

A bevy of new laws and bills also threatens to limit freedom of expression.

Along with what has been described by activists as a flawed Journalists Protection Law, currently being challenged in court by local rights groups, bills on Internet security, freedom of expression and political party organisation are being considered.

These include vague and poorly defined terminology, such as violating "public morals" or conveying "immoral messages," along with what analysts and diplomats call disproportionately harsh punishments.

"The combination of vague terms and extreme punishments outlined in these draft laws could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Iraq," one Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman Ali Mussawi has insisted that Iraqi journalists now "enjoy huge freedoms."

"Developments in the media, in all its forms, represent tremendous progress, and cannot be compared to the time of the former regime," Mussawi said of Saddam's rule.

In the year since Mehdi's death, Demozy has scaled back its coverage of politics and corruption because, as Ali noted, "we couldn't find a replacement for Hadi. We tried, and we are still trying."

The station suspended regular programming for two weeks after Mehdi's murder, instead airing passages from the Koran interspersed with condolences and discussions with his friends and other officials.

Ali and Tayyib both pointed to the fact that Mehdi had relatives in Denmark as proof that he could have left the country, but chose to stay.

"We lost a brave journalist, and me, I lost a friend, an educated man, a funny man with a big heart," said Ali.

"He came to a homeland lacking in services, lacking in respect for its citizens," he added. "He was a patriot."

 

Yemen warring parties 'closer' to agreement

Major assaults target IS jihadists in Iraq, Syria

Juncker warns Ankara against migrant deal threats

New Afghan Taliban leader named

Annual Jewish pilgrimage starts in Tunisia

Tunisia tourism sees 'slight recovery'

UN envoy calls for economic rescue plan for Yemen

Bahrain jails 19 for attacks on police

Up to 30 dead in shipwreck off Libya

UN says Syrians will 'starve' unless aid improves

Christian homes set ablaze in Egyptian village 'love story'

Kuwait's main opposition group ends polls boycott

Twin offensives on IS edge forward in Syria, Iraq

Private firms to help in hunt for Egyptair black boxes

New Israeli defence minister's tough talk to be put to the test

Syria most dangerous place for health workers

Concern for civilians trapped in Iraq's Fallujah

Brent rises past $50 a barrel

Iraq PM urges protesters to stay home

Israeli air force carries out strikes on Hamas sites in Gaza

Sudan accuses UN official of 'false' reports on displaced

Egypt quashes prison sentences for 47 protesters

At least 5 drown off Libya coast

Coalition airstrike kills six Yemen civilians 'by mistake'

Erdogan chairs first meeting of new Turkey cabinet

Pope prays to 'convert hearts' of ISIS extremists

Egypt expels French journalist amid crackdown on media

Israeli rights group gives up on army complaints system

Hamas-led council backs executions without Abbas approval

Netanyahu forms ultra-nationalist Israel government

Syrian base used by Russia damaged in IS attack

Kurdish, Arab forces announce anti-IS offensive north of Syria's Raqa

Palestinian PM dismisses Netanyahu proposal

Israel PM's travel expenses under scrutiny

EgyptAir victims' relatives give samples for DNA tests

Iran sends new delegation to Saudi for hajj talks

Hardline cleric elected head of Iran's Assembly of Experts

Civilians trapped as Fallujah siege tightens

Iraq's Fallujah offensive draws attention from embattled PM

Turkey incoming PM unveils cabinet

US, Russia scramble to save Syria truce

Libyan coastguards intercept 550 bound for Europe

Campus bomb kills two in Yemen's Sanaa

Saudi soldier killed in landmine blast on Yemen border

Over 148 killed in IS bombings in Syria regime heartland