Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard has evaluated the situation of press freedom situation in Iraq six years after the start of the US-led military intervention in March 2008. His assessment can be read on the website of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), a French think tank.
Read the article here:
Iraq’s journalists have lost in physical safety what they gained in freedom from the US intervention. The press did what it was told in Saddam Hussein’s time. The president was the lead story every day and criticism was impossible. Journalists who dared to stray from the official line were immediately punished, often by a long stay in prison.
The regime’s overthrow in the spring of 2003 opened the way for an unprecedented degree of freedom. Privately-owned, independent and opposition-run media emerged and around 300 newspapers, radio stations and TV channels were soon operating on Iraqi territory. Journalists immediately started speaking their minds, something they had never previously been able to do.
But they just as quickly became targets for the many armed groups operating in the country. The killers had a range of motives including the journalist’s religion, his clan or family, the criticisms he expressed in his reports or the foreign media he worked for. In all, 225 media personnel (journalists and their assistants) have been killed since the start of the invasion by the coalition forces in March 2003.
This has been the deadliest war of all times for the press. Almost four times as many journalists have been killed in the past six years in Iraq as in the 20 years of the Vietnam war. The deadliest years of all were 2006 and 2007, with an average of one journalist killed a week. In the great majority of cases, the killers came from the ranks of the army groups that have been fighting Iraq’s central government and the foreign forces. But more than 10 journalists were killed by US soldiers. The Pentagon recognised their responsibility for several of these deaths but none of the soldiers involved received anything more than administrative sanctions.
Impunity has helped to prolong this dramatic situation. There was a marked fall in violence against journalists in 2008 but the death of two reporters in March 2009 has shown that the danger continues. Even in Kurdistan, a region traditionally preserved from the violent upheavals taking place in the rest of the country, physical violence against journalists has increased.
The Iraqi authorities, including Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, are not totally impervious to this issue. After turning a deaf ear to appeals from international organisations, the government finally agreed in 2008 to create a special police unit tasked with investigating murders of journalists. It also set up a hotline for journalists in danger. It sometimes even provides armed protection to journalists who request it.
The violence has an enormous impact on news coverage in Iraq. Some particularly dangerous regions are hardly covered at all, even by local media. Journalists are constantly forced to weigh a news story’s importance against the dangerous of going to cover it. Scant reporting is done in the field. Journalists generally spend as little time as possible on the streets. They quickly record one or two interviews and talk to a few people and then return to base. Investigative reporting is virtually impossible in Iraq.
During the toughest years, foreign journalists based in Iraq stopped leaving their hotel rooms, which were often turned into fortified news rooms, and instead sent their local stringers out to get the necessary photos and footage. Mere interpreters and fixers to start with, many of these Iraqi employees have gradually evolved into real reporters.
Because of all the risk, hundreds of Iraqi journalists have had to flee the country for Syria and Jordan, or even Europe and North America. Their departure has often left local news organisations without any experienced journalists, forcing them to drastically cut back their news coverage.
The situation is clearly going to change again as a result of the progressive withdrawal of troops announced by the new US administration. Journalists working for international news media, who are often accused of spying for the “enemy,” will probably be targeted less. But the Iraqi government must also resist the temptation to take control of the news media. There have been several recent cases of threats, pressure and administrative harassment by officials hostile to the press. They serve as a reminder that freedom of expression is still a long way from being an entrenched right in Iraq.