A Glimpse of Its Reality in Iraq
Ever since the member of English Parliament Edmund Burke (1729-1797) stood in the House of Commons of Great Britain while presenting/ delivering his report in the year 1787 in the presence of the major three ruling authorities in Britain, stating the following: “ There are three estates in Parliament but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all”; the usage of the term “ Fourth Estate” in particular started to spread.
The figures interested – on their part- engaged in this field were not at all unaware of the importance of Journalism and journalists. As Virginia’s Bill of Rights had already declared: “freedom of the press is one of the most important foundations of freedom, and it is never restricted by anyone but tyrannical government”. However, Burke’s statement shed more light on the meaning of journalism and the kind of power attributed, attached and linked to it. Later, the constitution of Massachusetts included: “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth”.
In Windhoek, capital of Namibia, and from April 29th to May 3rd, of the year 1991, the participants of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s seminar signed Windhoek Declaration. Later, in 1993 the United
Nations announced the third of March of each year to be the World Press Freedom Day.
The Windhoek(1) assembly raised a number of points, including:
- The prosperity of an independent, free press that is based on diversity is indispensable to achieve democracy in any country; which can also enable economic sustainability, too.
- The definition of free press that is referred to here is: to have the kind of press which is independent from governmental, economic and political control. In addition to independency in using materials and equipment necessary to print and publish newspapers and magazines.
- What is meant by diversity- based press is to put an end and eliminate any type of monopoly by having the utmost number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals. This can reflect the wide, diverse average of opinions in the society.
Promoting for and raising the interest, dialogue and advertisement on World Days can emulate an open, public invitation to educate people on numerous cases/ issues that are of direct relevance to their daily life and to healthy, societal and political aspects. Furthermore, the United Nations work/ aim to use these occasions as tools which could contribute in emphasizing the very importance of those days and, hence, the seriousness of these notions inside peoples’ minds/perspectives. In the same time, they offer a chance to review current work and procedures; to make room for a very crucial question: what was achieved and what is more yet to be achieved.
Why writing about it now?
We can not help but to resemble press to a mirror; reflecting the diversity and range of opinions at any time and country. Nevertheless, we look at it and consider it a space to tackle/discuss a range of conflicting ideologies or thoughts. Journalism has the merit/advantage of making the information presented through it a one of many tools to evaluate the work and performance of governments and here lies the importance of this “space”: it represents a barrier that prevents creating a possible, perhaps extreme conflict in case this information was not processed accordingly in the right manner via press. Here we strongly advice against dismantling freedom of press, on one side, and freedom of expression on the other. We assure that press is not only limited to broadcasting and exchanging of news, rather, it is an important source of information and space for protesting.
On the other hand, the importance of press in countries similar to ours lies especially from the endeavors to enhance and build the internal democratic system with all the transparency needed as a principle, to the importance of celebrating the world Press Freedom Day and its unique theme “ information for public use” in recognition of its significance.
This information help to produce new visions that strengthens accountability and human rights respect which is the essence and core of democratic system’s structure.
We write about is now in an attempt to shed light on various violations that are committed against freedom of press and opinion holders. some of the reasons behind are classic and well known, others are more modern in nature like the Coronavirus Pandemic that represented a new challenge to press in general and those who work in this field. Moreover, the governments used it as a pretext to limit freedom of press as a movement and to control the subjects press addresses.
A report issued by Reporters without Borders on March 2020 (The Outcome of Detained, Hostaged and Missed Journalists during the year 2020) revealed the tremendous and alarming increase in the level of violations against freedom of press on spring of 2020 and with the beginning of Covid-19 spread.” It was noticed that more than 300 cases of violation were directly linked to the Journalistic coverage of the 2020 health crisis from (February 1st – November 20th) with an estimated number of more than 450 reporters included. The interrogations as well as arbitrary arrests alone formed a 35% of the recorded violations; preceding – in terms of rate- the physical and moral violence whose level is only 30% of the documented violations/abuses.” (2) The same report mentions the grand censorship imposed by China on the freedom of press and the overall criticism against Beijing’s management of the health crisis as a result. It even includes the criticism shared via social media platforms. The report states: “no less than 7 people are still held/locked against their will due to their coverage of Coronavirus news. The number includes scandal exposers and influencing political analyzers like the prominent amateur journalist Kai Wee” (3) In India, no less than 48 reporters were targeted after being legally prosecuted which lead to the arrest of about 15 of them before they were finally discharged after bail.
The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor issued their special report on June, 2020 (Freedom of Press, Increasing Restrictions Under Covid-19)(4). The report enlisted the monetary of many press restriction cases in Romania, Bulgaria, UAE and Iraq. The causes of restrictions can be summarized to the government’s unprecedented insistence on monopolizing information by considering other type of information – unless released by governmental source or approval- as misguiding and false and could expose individuals or institutions to the risk of violating law.
In Romania, for instance, President Klaus Iohannis signed an emergency decree that gives the government the privilege of removing press reports or shutting down electronic websites that posts and shares “incorrect” information about the virus. On a relevant scale, the government of Bulgaria was keen to seize the opportunity of declaring an emergency code to make adjustments and editing upon the penal code in order to punish all those who publish misguiding news regarding Corvid outbreak; waving the threat of imprisoning them for a period of 3 years or paying a fee of 5000 Euros.
United Arab Emirates followed the same measurement by imposing a 20,000 Dirhams (almost 5500 Euros) fee on reporters who exchange any of the information related to the Pandemic if they were not published by official channels approved by the government. As for Iraq, the governmental authorities suspended the license of Reuters agency after the latter published a report which signals the fact that the actual number of confirmed positive Covid cases are in fact more than what is being officially said. The report described how healthcare workers were instructed by authorities to avoid speaking to media about Corona virus situation in the country.
In the recent years the amount of pressure reporters around the world are experiencing has become clearer and more noticed. Particularly in countries having massive social protests. Within a memorandum that is a part of UNESCO’s series titled (Media and Expression of Freedom in World Trends)(5).
The report detected 125 cases of assault to reporters while they were covering the popular protesting movements in 65 countries from January 2015 to 30th of June, 2020. Lastly, the year 2019 witnessed the highest rate of assaults where 32 reporters were attacked.
The above-mentioned report speaks about a wide variety of harassments and assaults reporters experienced during their coverage of the demonstrations inside their countries. Frequent of the many tools used in spite of the reporters to decrease the level of their activity/involvement were spyware, deliberately installed in phones of those whose job is to implement full media-coverage of the activities of the political opposition and protests. Some of the official governmental agencies had already sneaked and gained access to phone call, text messages and email data base. This could undermine press freedom and alternatively enable the authorities to track down the reporters’ whereabouts and pave the way towards detecting their calls and connections. Local governments officials exposed some reporters’ personal information via exchanging their personal addresses or the names of their children(6).
Later, United Nations’ Secretary General António Guterres signified and called for the protection of reporters. Emphasizing the reason of this special attention to the notion in what he called the misguiding information pandemic the world is burdened by “And when journalists are targeted, societies as a whole pay the price. And if we don’t protect journalists, our ability to stay informed and make evidence-based decisions is severely limited. And when journalists cannot do their jobs safely, we lose an important line of defense against the pandemic of misinformation and disinformation that has spread on the Internet”.
Press Freedom Within Iraqi Context: A Quick Look
- Glimpse of The Near History:
As for every aspect of daily Iraqi life, Journalism was, and still is to some extent, subjected to the influence of the political regimes that ruled Iraq. Ever Since the establishment of the first Iraqi newspaper and printing its first edition in the 15th of May,1869; During the era/time of Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha until this moment. Journalism went through times of prosperity and others of extreme censorship. Having in mind that Baghdad’s Province paper in addition to Mosul and Basra’s were issued in Arabic language until British forces reached Iraq in year 1917.
The Ottoman empire had not regulated a judicial law that organizes the working nature of press. But a special criminal law amendment was activated; it had within its materials some segments dedicated to the regulation of journalism and publishing houses. The point that refers to the penalty of printing or publishing written material described as harmful or malicious: anti-government and anti-provinces which exist under the umbrella of the great Ottoman empire.
After the British Invading forces entry and the establishment of the modern Iraqi
state, the situation remained the same until the launch of Prints Law number (82) for the year 1931 and after it, the second Prints Law -edited- 1933-1934 which was valid until the Prints Decree number (24) 1954 was fully applied. The next amendment was created by the republic government: number (206), year 1968.
From a practical point of view, there was not a great difference between those laws and decrees, the broad front lines belonging to the first law remained the same. They pointed to the forbidden material that are not to be tackled by press under any circumstances; of which: the ones that trigger hatred and grudges among citizens of a united nation. Also, the material that undermine the security of the country, etc. in general, all the previous are vague terms that can be flexibly interpreted by the decision makers who can explain it according to their own interests/agendas. Thus, newspapers stood under their mercy. A great many were locked down, or asked to pay fees plus other actions that targeted what we call today: Opposition Newspapers.
Press after the year 2003:
As many other elements in the post 2003 American Invasion, Press found itself in the front line of great changes. The state of chronic, dominant chaos and liberation of the ancient laws – the ones that suffocated Freedom of press for ages/years- in addition to the exclusive numbers of governmental and even private paper houses which echoes the governmental voice and perspective. Press, which saw the “light” for the first time in decades, was exposed to a space of liberty resulted in the opening of nearly hundreds of private and partisan newspapers right after the Invasion under complete absence of any press regulating laws. Approximately two months after the Provisional Coalition Administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer dismantled the Ministry of Culture and media, in an attempt to change the features of the state/system which is dictator in nature; On march 2003, Al-Sabah news paper was launched only to be the speaking mouth of state, not only government.
Over the years that followed the American occupation and with the continuation of the on-going military operations, unstable security situation and terrorist attacks that destroyed everything and everybody; press had its “fair” share of assassinations, kidnappings and prosecutions. They all prevented press from playing its important role in covering what is happening in reality especially since it witnessed the birth of a new political system accompanied by on-ground military operations in more than one city. Iraq, afterwards, remained one of the uttermost dangerous places for Journalists/reporters to be. Terrorist organizations/entities was a part of the chaotic formula. On Wednesday’s morning, February 22, 2006. Journalist Atwar Bahjat was kidnapped when she was media covering. Later she was murdered by armed groups in Samara.
The killers of Martyr Hadi al-Mahdi (one of the prominent journalists in Iraq, he died at the age of 46, married and had three children. He was the host of To Whoever Listens, which was a popular talk show broadcasted by Radio Demozy) who was assassinated remain anonymous. They were not identified or recognized still. To add more, the authority was not even serious in running investigations of the crime despite all the popular demands of crowds asking to expose the preparators guilty of the murder and thus, let justice run its course.
The last thing Al-Mahdi wrote on his Facebook account at about 1 in the noon according to Baghdad’s time, nearly an hour before his death, was that he had been living in a state of fear and terror for the past three days as he explained:
“enough! I am appalled. For three days, I have received several calls warning me of raids and arrests. They will target demonstrators. Some are claiming the government is going to do this and that and, some are disguised to threat me on Facebook. I am going to participate in the demonstrations as I have always supported it. I deeply believe that political system in Iraq is nothing but a combination of mere national, economic, and politic waste (garbage) and replacing it is a must for we do deserve to have a better government. In short, I don’t represent any party other than the miserable reality we are living in.
“I am sick of watching our mothers as they beg in the street and I had enough of politicians stealing the wealth and resources of my country Iraq!”.
The Iraqi October Uprising and demonstrations of the year 2019 represented a great challenge to the political system and government on one hand and Journalists, on the second. As point number 38 of the second act (freedom) in Iraqi Constitution clearly indicates that the state guarantees, in a manner that does not violate public order, discipline and freedom of expression in all possible ways. In addition to other notions like freedom of expression, publishing, advertisement, media, printing, freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration. The accumulation of occurring events can be considered a massive violation of all the previously mentioned points. It is a scandalous breach of constitution on the part of the government. In association to this report tackling World Press Freedom Day, we will focus on what happened to Journalists and reporters due to media coverage of popular demonstrations.
Press Reality during 2019 Demonstrations and beyond:
The report prepared by Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (an Observatory Press Report Concerning Violations That Reached Iraqi Reporters From December 13th – January 1st 2019)(8) considered the year 2019 a setback in Iraqi Journalism. The association recorded 373 cases of assault to journalists of both genders in different Iraqi cities and governorates. They included:
assassinations, life threating warnings, kidnappings, arrests, compulsive detention and physical abuse in addition to media coverage blocking and attempts to disturb them. 17 national and Arabic media agencies were subjected to raids, arson, violations and suspension, according to the report.
Once the wave of demonstrations started, a new chapter of Iraqi journalism history began. The measurements of restriction took more than one form. Internet and satellite service were blocked. Offices of several media channels were closed (Alhadath, Dijla, Alrasheed, NRT, Alsharqiya, Fallujah, Hona Baghdad, Alhurra) or under threat of lockdown and reporters received life ending threats which forced them to flee and find refuge/shelter in Sulaymaniyah or Erbil.
The limitation on reporters covering the uprising took two forms: the first is the appliance of regulations that goes back in time to the pre 2003 regime. The same regulations enabled Iraqi government to adapt certain measurements against reporters. Some of the laws encourages slandering and incitement. In a report titled “We can call you at any time”… Freedom of expression is threatened in Iraq”, Human Rights Watch has studied 33 cases in total. It was founded that 17 of those cases, accusations were addressed according to these vary laws. In four of the 33 cases, charges were dropped later and detainees were released. In 16 other cases individuals were imprisoned without any pressed charges. As it turned out, 20 cases out of 33 were cases related to the demonstrations. Others targeted who wrote about corruption of the government on media channels or via social media platforms. Here we must emphasize a reminder; Iraqi government had violated constitutional decrees that calls to respect media and journalism and their employees in a procedure that guarantees their right to access information. Authorities also failed to keep international agreements Iraq was a part of. For example: the second act of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adapted by United Nations General Assembly “ The right of everyone to hold opinions without interference, as well as The right to freedom of expression, and this right includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, whether orally, in written or printed form, in the form of art, or through any other means of his choice”.
The second is in the form of casual harassments. They are a collection of killing threats that many Iraqi reporters engaged with demonstrations have received.
Threats was either directed to them personally or to institutions they work in in a more inclusive way. It is the most dangerous aspect people in journalism could ever tolerate. As for the parties behind it; they are unknown to the Iraqi court (which confirms it). The investigative committees assigned never revealed the identities of those villains.
In most cases, regardless of frontiers or groups responsible, impunity remained the prevailing culture in the recent years; serving the entities who attacked press in the times of demonstrative movements.
Of the most popular names of reporters who perished during October’s uprising are: journalist Ahmed Abdel Samad and photographer Safaa Ghali who were killed in Basra during the coverage of demonstrations for Dijla TV (satellite
Later, Ahmed Mhanna got killed – in Al-Sinak Massacre-. he worked a selfemployed photographer died in Baghdad, January 2019.(9)
- providing security and safety to journalists stays on top of governments own responsibilities since no one expects them to perform their job positions without being sure that their lives matter and that they are safe.
- lack of punishment on crimes such as killings or violent acts leads to selfsurveillance on the side of reporters. It can make a reporter stop tackling subject matters that are worth addressing. This comes from the belief that going over some topics with no security assurance can jeopardize their life.
- Providing safe environment, from a legal point of view, requires possessing legislations which guarantees Freedom of Press. Most urgent of this is the right to access information and not to monopolize it.
- the insurance of having freedom of expression and publishing as an entitled right of Iraq’s constitution is one of the most important rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Media outlets (television, radio and newspapers) should be independent and not biased. The intention here is to refer to pro-state media.
- the reporter holds the task and responsibility of documenting information
with attention and accuracy in the type of subjects selected; with affirmation of respecting citizen’s private and personal life alike.
- Reporters and journalists are entitled to establish unions and associations that
reflects their aspirations and vision. Ones that defend them in presence of relevant law and order.
Prepared by: Information Center for Research and Development’s working
team( Zahraa waleed , ALkarrar Hassan , Harith ALhetty )
Translated by: Rand Firas Hasan
- Windhoek Declaration
- reporters sans frontières’s report (The Outcome of Detained, Hostaged and Missed Journalists during the year (2020) Arabic version is available via the link: rsf_bilan_2020_ar.pdf
- previous source
- The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor issued their special report on June, 2020 (Freedom of Press, Increasing Restrictions Under Covid-19) Arabic version is available via the link: coronamedia.pdf (euromedmonitor.org)
- previous source
- “100 years of journalism in Iraq” book. Ali Shamki Alfatlawi, published by Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, house of cultural affairs, 2021.
- previous source
- The report prepared by Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (an observatory press report concerning violations that reached Iraqi reporters from December 13th – January 1st 2019) available via link:
- The report prepared by UNESCO (Safety of reporters covering demonstration movements) available via link:
Information Center for Research and Development Staff.