Iraq: the most dangerous place on earth for journalists

Since 2003, persecuted reporters facing new threats to freedom of expression
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The Independent Online

Hot-headed and buoyed by youthful defiance, Sardasht Osman ignored the death threat texts on his phone and his family's pleas to tone down his articles criticising the Kurdish regional government. In a piece entitled "Farewell", he said he was prepared to meet his killers. "I fear neither death nor torture," he wrote. "Whatever happens, I will not leave this city, and I will wait for my own death." It was his last article.

The 23-year-old was heading into the University of Salahaddin in Erbil when he was grabbed by two men in a crowded area full of armed guards and bundled into a car, his books left strewn in the street. Two days later, his battered body was found 50 miles away in Mosul outside the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headquarters. He had two bullet wounds through the mouth, a symbolic punishment for someone who has spoken out.

Across Kurdistan tomorrow, protests will mark the 40th day, a traditional mourning interval, since Mr Osman's body was found. The murder – the third in two years – has sent a shock wave through the journalistic community, said Kamal Rauf, the editor-in-chief of the region's largest independent paper, Hawlati. "Three of my reporters have resigned. They say they are not scared but their families are," he said. It has also led to an unprecedented surge of protest, with journalists, students, academics and civil rights campaigners marching under the banner "We Will Not Be Silenced".

Ever since the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq has been the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that 89 have been murdered and a further 50 have died in crossfire or other acts of war. Some 117 of the dead journalists, were Iraqi. The CPJ says that Iraq holds the world record for journalists murdered with impunity; nobody has ever been prosecuted for any of the killings.

But, some argue, the threat to freedom of expression in Iraq is changing. Fewer journalists are dying today than a few years ago but journalism itself is beginning to expire under relentless official pressure. The government sees media which criticise it as the propaganda organs for opposition parties or foreign countries.

"The real danger to journalism is not killings and kidnappings but the clampdown by the authorities," says Ziad al-Ajili, the head of Journalistic Freedom Observatory, a Baghdad-based media rights organisation.

The JFO, whose office is protected by heavy metal doors, methodically records and protests against the assaults, harassment and detention of reporters by the security forces as well as raids on media outlets and their closure. Its last annual report lists 262 different types of attacks, almost all of them by the state security forces.

Mr Ajili says this growing persecution is effective: "The Iraqi media no longer dare to expose scandals. It was the foreign media which exposed the secret government prison at the old al-Muthanna airport in Baghdad where prisoners were being tortured. Iraqi journalists would not have dared."

Under Saddam Hussein, the media was tightly controlled by the Ministry of Information, though attacks on corruption were sometimes allowed. Terrified journalists were summoned to meet Uday, Saddam's eldest son, for praise or imprisonment depending on his mood. Yet officials paid attention to what appeared in the media. Mr Ajili says that today the government's priority is to eliminate all coverage of "mismanagement and corruption".

It is not only television stations and newspapers that are targeted. In February, security and military forces raided three publishing houses in Baghdad and confiscated a 16-page booklet, Where Has Iraq's Money Gone? covering financial and administrative corruption. They arrested six staff and reporters were prevented from entering the publishers for several days.

Restrictions on the media are increasing. Reporters are meant to obtain a permit to cover any violent incident. Even when permission is granted, local security forces often beat or arrest reporters, or smash their equipment. The purpose of this is to downplay the level of violence which, while much lower than three years ago, is higher than in most of the rest of the world.

Regulation and control of the media is in the hands of the National Communications and Media Commission. This has unlimited power to close broadcasters and newspapers, confiscate equipment, withdraw licenses and impose fines. Just before the March elections, the commission declared that all journalists must have permits and must pledge "not to incite sectarianism". This might include something as simple as publishing the number of victims of a bombing, figures which the government tries to minimise.

While new threats are weighing on journalists, the old dangers have not gone away. Yasin al-Fadhawi in Anbar, west of Baghdad, found a bomb the size of a football outside the door of his home last summer, two days after his magazine published an article about allegedly corrupt dealings between the government and tribal chiefs. He fled his home and went into hiding. Along with 43 other journalists in Anbar who consider themselves under threat, Mr al-Fadhawi wanted a gun to protect himself but could nor get a permit.

Imad al-Ebad, an investigative journalist at a television station in Baghdad, had just got out of his car to meet a contact when he was shot four times in the head. Astonishingly, Mr Ebadi survived. He had just enough strength to get back into his car before he passed out for 10 minutes. His would-be murderer must have thought he was dead, but Mr Emadi revived and drove, bleeding profusely, across Baghdad to his television station. "As I passed through army and police checkpoints they saw I was hit but they did nothing," he says.

His colleagues took him to hospital in Baghdad where he stayed for 10 days before spending two months recuperating in a hospital in Germany. He fingers the scars on his neck where one bullet hit him and bows his head to show where hair is beginning to cover his other wounds. He does not know exactly who attacked him or why, but he assumes it was in retaliation for his investigation of government corruption. "As well as my television work, I was writing articles on corruption and scandals in the Prime Minister's office," he says. "I had received threatening phone calls and text messages saying: "You are nothing. We will kill you."

Extract from Sardasht Osman's 'Farewell'

"In the last few days I was told for the first time that there isn't much left of your life. To put it in their own words I have no permission to breathe in this city but I fear neither death nor torture. I am waiting for ... my killers. I pray that they grant me a tragic death which deserves my tragic life.... I want them to understand that what scares us is not death but the continuation of such days for our next generation.... The tragedy is the authorities don't care about the death of the generations.... Whatever happens I will not leave this city, and I will wait for my own death. I know this is the first bell ring for my death but at the end it will become a ring bell for the youth in my society"

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