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 already extreme under the regime of Saddam
Hussein. The 2002
Press Freedom Index of the watchdog group Reporters
Without Borders ranked Iraq a dismal 130th. The 2006
index pushes Iraq down to the 154th position out of 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 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 Inter Press Service (IPS).
"I was arrested then for criticizing 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 also targeted for reporting
the growing resistance to the occupation.
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 last 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 newsreader had appeared wearing black
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.
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
Among the dead was IPS journalist Alaa
Hassan who was shot and killed by armed men as he drove to work Jun. 28
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 organizations 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
Ali al-Fadhily is IPS’ Baghdad correspondent. Dahr Jamail is IPS’ specialist
writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering
the Middle East for several years.
(Inter Press Service)