Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1404, (2 - 8 August 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1404, (2 - 8 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Free speech under attack in Iraq

In the battle over hearts and minds in Iraq, government regulators are on the offensive to limit free speech, writes Salah Nasrawi


Free speech under attack in Iraq
Free speech under attack in Iraq

When former US president George W. Bush sent troops to invade Iraq in 2003, he pledged that the Occupation Authority would build lasting institutions based on freedom and democracy in the beleaguered country.

Intoxicated by the quick military victory and the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Bush compared post-invasion Iraq to the birth of the United States.

He vowed to make spreading freedom and democracy the centrepiece of American foreign policy in other parts of the world that have long been plagued by corruption and oppression.

However, Karl Marx’s famous line about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce has rarely applied more exactly than to Bush’s vision of turning Iraq into an oasis of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Iraq today is a country where the political system is less than “democratic” and where individual rights are limited. There are also increasing signs that Iraq is moving fast towards becoming a repressive police state that is very far removed from representative democracy.

Iraq’s parliamentary system is rapidly eroding, and the country’s ruling oligarchy that has been in power since the US-led invasion is slipping deeper into despotism.

Over the last three weeks, the Iraqi authorities have deployed the security forces backed by armour to quell protests raging in the country’s oil-rich south over corruption and a lack of basic services.

Iraqi human rights groups say 14 protestors have been killed and hundreds of others injured amid widespread arrests.

In a bid to intimidate the protesters, the government and its political allies have accused Saddam loyalists and “infiltrators” harbouring “foreign agendas” of being behind the unrest. They have also accused the protesters of undermining the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Each of these charges can cause social stigma and even be used to prosecute the protesters for crimes such as treason or undermining state security.

Last week, the state-owned Iraqi Media Network, established and funded by the US Occupation Authority as an independent media holding, sacked one prominent journalist for supporting the protests.

In his dismissal letter to Ahmed Abdel-Hussein, head of the Network Mujahid Abu Al-Hail wrote that the journalist had been fired because of anti-government writings on his Facebook page.

Abdel-Hussein, who has been active in the protest movement, said he was fired after he refused to sign a written pledge not to criticise the government in his posts.

On Saturday, the network also axed Hanan Mehdi, a broadcaster at the Arabic-language Iraqia News channel, apparently for her participation in the protests.

Meanwhile, the network summoned representatives from Iraq’s independent media to sign an agreement to set up the National Media Alliance, described as a platform to “steer public opinion and to support the state in overcoming crises.” 

There is plenty of evidence that the government and its allies in the political class are tightening their grip on the media and even making the war against the media a favourite communication strategy.

Last week, the state-owned Iraqi Airways decried reports on social media about a brawl between two pilots while in the middle of a flight over a food tray as being fake news driven by “malicious agendas.”

Iraqis responded with horror and mockery on social media to the row that erupted on board a flight to the Iraqi capital Baghdad from the Iranian city of Mashhad with 157 people on board not including the crew.

In a harshly worded statement, the airline attacked the reports as being “no less harmful than what IS has done in destroying state institutions and spreading chaos.”

Later, it admitted the incident had occurred during the flight and said it was suspending the two pilots.

The Iraqi government has also taken its war against the media to the Internet, and Iraq’s National Security Council recently ordered Internet services to be cut for several days.

The international rights group Amnesty International said Internet access had been deliberately cut off in Iraq to prevent protesters and human-rights activists from sharing images of the excessive force being used by the security forces.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international rights group, said arrests and the intimidation of journalists and blocking of the Internet had made coverage of the protests dangerous.

In a statement, the Paris-based group said several Iraqi journalists had received warning messages or had been directly threatened by persons linked to the security forces or pro-government militias.

It quoted Iraqi journalists as saying that they had been forced by the security forces to sign statements undertaking to stop covering the protest movement.

The London-based The New Arab newspaper reported the horrendous abuse of Iraqi journalists by the security forces and militias on 26 July, saying that they had been subjected to arrests, beatings and torture by electric shocks for covering the protests.

Iraq has always been a difficult place for journalists, who may suffer from violence, intimidation, censorship and self-censorship. Under the former Saddam regime the media was entirely subservient to the government, and journalists could suffer brutal treatment including dismissal, being banned for writing, and even disappearance and murder.

Though press freedom improved in Iraq after Saddam’s downfall and various private and other press outlets and radio and television channels appeared, Iraqi journalists have often found themselves caught between anti-government militants and the country’s powerful ruling class.

The International Media Support Group, an international NGO, and its Iraqi partner the Metro Centre for Journalist Rights and Advocacy reported in January that violations against journalists in 2017 had included the killing of eight journalists and 419 cases of press freedom violations and the harassment of the media in Iraq.

Journalists say the control of the media and manipulation have been stepped up as the country’s ruling oligarchy maintain their control over the state and society and the sectarian power struggle in the country has intensified.

Iraq is now one of the world’s most hostile environments for journalists to operate in, they said.

The first signs of a crackdown on freedom of speech came when the government changed the law governing the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (CMC), allowing it to issue guidelines for the media based on vague stipulations that place arbitrary restrictions on coverage.

In 2010, the Iraqi Media Network was given regulatory powers and put under the control of the ruling parties.

The country’s Supreme Judicial Council also created a special court in the same year to prosecute journalists despite a ban on the creation of special courts in Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution.

Observers say that the situation has deteriorated even further in the past few years as most political groups and wealthy members of the oligarchy have created their own outlets and television channels in order to virtually control the media space.

Coupled with this grab to control the media, disinformation and fake news have become tools of media control as Iraq had begun heading towards kleptocracy.

Press freedoms have deteriorated, and there are growing fears that the brutal repression of the latest protest movement will pave the way for further crackdowns on free speech and even a descent into autocracy.

Should this take place and the freedom of speech definitively end in Iraq, the United States will lose all moral claim for having gone to war in Iraq in 2003 after it has already lost the war itself.

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