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."

 

Saudi Arabia replaces powerful intelligence chief

Invisible Bouteflika urges Algerians to vote

Egypt leftist leader urges all revolutionary groups to unite

Washington will not issue visa for Iran UN envoy

Algeria finally opens its piggybank to lure back exiled youth

Egypt jails ex-presidential hopeful for fraud

Jordan ‘destroyed’ combat vehicles entering from Syria

South Sudan army loses key oil town of Bentiu

Lebanon parliament soon to elect new president

Zarif to discuss Caspion Sea states in Russia

MERS spreading in Saudi Arabia

Suicide bombs rock Ramadi government compound

Three Palestinians killed in Gaza blast

Peace talks delayed after Palestine blamed for fatal shooting

Palestinians clash with Israeli police in Al-Aqsa

Undercover New York police unit that spied on Muslims disbanded

British paedophile gets 20-year sentence in Morocco

Syria army fights its way into besieged Homs

Benflis mobilizes ‘army’ to monitor Algeria election

Syria army advances on rebel-held neighbourhoods in Homs

Egypt court bans any Brotherhood candidacies in upcoming elections

Turkey rights groups sound alarm at plan to build gay-only prisons

Kuwait coup plot video ‘neither genuine nor reliable’

Iraq Kurdistan digs trench to prevent militant infiltration from Syria

Saudi urges stern world action against Syria

Zarif mission to mend Iran-Gulf ties begins in UAE

Results of Egypt vote appear before time in collection of signatures

South Sudan rebels demand firms end oil production

Jordan court sentences Syrian smugglers to five years in prison

Security concerns force Iraq to shut notorious Abu Ghraib prison

Turkey to social media companies: Open offices and pay taxes

Bashir bans political party meetings without permission

Shoes thrown at Jordan PM for ‘raising prices’

Jordan envoy to Libya abducted

US condemns ‘unconscionable’ threats against Libyan PM

Assailants attack Bahrain police car with Molotov cocktails

Bomb attack targets security checkpoint in Cairo

US takes issue with Assad’s upper hand claim

Militants close Iraq's Euphrates River dam

How did Bouteflika's 15 years in power bring corruption to Algeria?

Libya court adjourns trial of ex-Gathafi officials

Iran complains to UN over US visa ban to chosen envoy

Twitter executives meet Turkish officials amid tax evasion accusations

UN rights chief condemns ‘routine’ use of torture in Syria

Egypt's Sisi officially submits bid for president