Iraqi Press Under Attack from Authorities in Iraq

Knight Ridder Newspapers

A photographer for a Baghdad newspaper says Iraqi police beat and detained him for snapping pictures of long lines at gas stations. A reporter for another local paper received an invitation from Iraqi police to cover their graduation ceremony and ended up receiving death threats from the recruits. A local TV reporter says she’s lost count of how many times Iraqi authorities have confiscated her cameras and smashed her tapes.

All these cases are under investigation by the Iraqi Association to Defend Journalists, a union that formed amid a chilling new trend of alleged arrests, beatings and intimidation of Iraqi reporters at the hands of Iraqi security forces. Reporters Without Borders, an international watchdog group for press freedom, tracked the arrests of five Iraqi journalists within a two-week period and issued a statement on April 26 asking authorities “to be more discerning and restrained and not carry out hasty and arbitrary arrests.”

While Iraq’s newly elected government says it will look into complaints of press intimidation, local reporters said they’ve seen little progress since reporting the incidents. Some have quit their jobs after receiving threats – not from insurgents, but from police. Most Iraqi reporters are reluctant to even identify themselves as press when stopped at police checkpoints. Others say they won’t report on events that involve Iraqi security forces, which creates a big gap in their local news coverage.

“Tell me to cover anything except the police,” said Muth’hir al Zuhairy, the reporter from Sabah newspaper who was threatened at a police academy.

The fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship resulted in unprecedented freedom for Iraqi journalists, who’d suffered torture and prison terms for criticizing the former regime. More than 150 new newspapers and several local TV and radio stations sprang up immediately after the war began – one of the biggest success stories of the U.S.-led invasion. In recent months, however, Iraqi police have begun cracking down on local journalists, creating a wave of fear reminiscent of Saddam’s era.

“If things carry on like this, we will have to carry weapons along with our cameras and recorders,” said Israa Shakir, editor of Iraq Today, an independent Baghdad newspaper. “Under such circumstances, we should be worried about the future of democracy.”

Although Baghdad is the main hub for Iraqi journalists, complaints have poured in from other provinces, said Ibrahim al Sarraj, director of the Iraqi Association to Defend Journalists. In southeastern Iraq, he said, a weekly newspaper was shut down in October for criticizing the governor of the Wasit province. A judge related to the governor sentenced two editors to several months in prison, Sarraj said. The court papers accused the men of “cursing and insulting” the politician.

In the northern town of Baqouba, a cameraman for a local TV station was filming a mosque when Iraqi troops detained him on April 9 for trespassing “in a prohibited place” and for shooting videos that could be used to help insurgents. He’s still in custody, said Salah al Shakerchi, one of the man’s colleagues at Al Diyar TV.

“There was no warrant. It was totally illegal, and he’s being kept in poor conditions,” Shakerchi said. “That’s all we know. We have had no further contact with him.”

Several Interior Ministry officials didn’t return phone messages seeking comment on the journalists’ complaints.

Unlike most Western journalists, who are bunkered in hotels because of security concerns, Iraqi reporters still cover bombing scenes and demonstrations, places swarming with authorities. The local journalists make easy targets for several reasons: Police aren’t used to press coverage of their activities, authorities aren’t well-versed in press freedoms and Iraqi politicians frequently gripe that negative news reports aid the insurgency.

“We’ve become hated because we say the truth, and the truth is that Iraqi police make a lot of mistakes,” said Ahmed Abed Ali, the photographer arrested Jan. 13 for taking pictures of long lines at gasoline stations.

Even with the backing of a major company, journalists in Iraq are targeted by local authorities. The Middle East’s two most popular satellite TV stations have suffered: Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau has been shuttered for months because of government criticism, and Iraqi forces held a reporter from Al-Arabiya for two weeks because he had footage of insurgent attacks.

Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al Jaafari, said the newly elected government won’t accept maltreatment of journalists and urged them to bring complaints through organizations such as the Iraqi Association to Defend Journalists.

The government’s main objective, he said, remains fighting terrorism. Iraqi police are the frequent targets of insurgent attacks and are naturally suspicious of reporters who show up minutes after a car bombing. Authorities also have reported incidents in which insurgents used fake press ID cards to get closer to their targets.

“Our brothers in media organizations understand the sensitivity and the difficulties of the current conditions,” Kubba said.

Al Dulaimy is a special correspondent. Knight Ridder correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report.

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