Codes criminalize speech ridiculing government
BAGHDAD - Ahmed al-Karbouli, a reporter for Baghdadiya TV in the violent city of Ramadi, did his best to ignore the death threats, right up until six armed men drilled him with bullets after midday prayers.
He was the fourth journalist killed in Iraq in September alone, out of a total of more than 130 since the 2003 invasion, the vast majority of them Iraqis. But these days, men with guns are not Iraqi reporters' only threat. Men with gavels are, too.
Under a broad new set of laws criminalizing speech that ridicules the government or its officials, some resurrected verbatim from Saddam Hussein's penal code, roughly a dozen Iraqi journalists have been charged with offending officials in the past year.
Currently, three journalists for a small newspaper in southeastern Iraq are being tried here for articles last year that accused a provincial governor, local judges and police officials of corruption. The journalists were accused of violating Paragraph 226 of the penal code, which makes anyone who "publicly insults" the government or public officials subject to up to seven years in prison.
On Sept. 7, the police sealed the offices of Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite news channel, for what the government said was inflammatory reporting. And the Committee to Protect Journalists says that at least three Iraqi journalists have served time in prison for writing articles deemed criminally offensive.
The office of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki has lately refused to talk to news organizations that report on sectarian violence in ways that the government considers inflammatory; some have been shut down.
In addition to coping with government pressures, dozens of Iraqi journalists have been kidnapped by gangs or detained by the U.S. military, on suspicion that they are helping Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias. One, Bilal Hussein, who photographed insurgents in Anbar Province for the Associated Press, has been in American custody without charges since April.
Iraqi journalists have to live with the fear of death, which dictates extreme security measures. Abdel Karim Hamadie, news manager for Al-Iraqiya Television, said he sometimes goes months without leaving the station's compound.
American diplomats here say they admire the dedication of Iraqi reporters in covering the war and the government's efforts to create a democracy.
"Journalists here work under very, very difficult conditions," said a U.S. Embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are taking fire from every direction. They've got the defamation law hanging over their heads. They've got their political opponents gunning for them. They are trying very hard, and we want to encourage them."
Under Saddam, reporters and editors were licensed and carefully watched. Now, Iraqi journalists still operate with considerable freedoms, at least compared with those in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, and many Iraqis have achieved a new level of professionalism by working closely with Western journalists.