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Friday, 14 August 2009

Heavy Fine for Iraqi Broadcaster over ‘Misquote’ of Top Military Official Fuels Concern about Media Freedom in Iraq

IPI Calls on Iraqi Government to Uphold Rights of Journalists 

Kurdish local television journalists do an interview in Arbil, 310 km (190 miles) north of Baghdad August 25, 2008. Photo: REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Just days after the Iraqi government published a draft law that appears to pave the way for government interference in the media, a 100 million Iraqi dinar (€60,000) fine levied on Wednesday against Iraqi satellite broadcaster Al-Sharqiya for “misquoting” a top military spokesperson is another ominous signal that press freedom in Iraq is deteriorating, the International Press Institute (IPI) warned on Friday.

An Iraqi court ordered the fine against Al-Sharqiya for slander, according to media reports, following a complaint filed in April by Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi military’s main spokesperson in Baghdad.  

Al-Moussawi claimed that the broadcaster misrepresented him by quoting him as stating that ex-detainees released by the United States would be rearrested by Iraqi authorities.  

The major-general claims to have said only that ex-detainee files would be reviewed as part of an investigation into complicity in recent bombings.

The court decision comes amid growing fears of an increase in state pressure on the media in Iraq.

On 31 July, the Iraqi government presented a draft law ostensibly aimed at protecting journalists, but containing as well worrying provisions that could have a negative impact on media freedom.

Vague wording in the draft prohibiting journalists from “compromising the security and stability of the country” could be used to stifle criticism, and the right to protect sources is annulled if “the law requires the source to be revealed.”
 
The bill also stipulates that freedom of the press can be suspended if a publication threatens citizens or makes “provocative or aggressive statements.”

Local Iraqi media freedom organisations, such as the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), have expressed concern over the draft law, which they see as “the beginning of the imposition of restrictions on journalists, as well as the government's reorganising control over information.”

“Whatever this law gives in the left hand it seizes back with the right,” Ziad al Ajili, JFO manager, told IPI. “Best for us as journalists is to have the right of access to information, and laws guaranteeing freedom of expression, not laws surrounding us with any kind of restriction.”

IPI Deputy Director Michael Kudlak warned Iraq against taking a step backwards by restricting media freedoms.

"We again urge Iraq’s judiciary and legislature to be mindful of the vital role played by media freedom while nurturing democracy,” he said. “Legislation that pushes journalists into self-censorship is a step backwards, not forwards. At this stage, it appears as though the Iraq government is taking a step backwards.”

IPI’s latest warning came as Iraqis including journalists, writers and booksellers demonstrated in Baghdad on Friday against what they allege is state censorship.