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Threat to independent media from Iraqi government officials

There has been a wave of lawsuits against independent Iraqi news media in recent weeks. Three daily newspapers and a TV station have so far been sued for defamation by senior government officials over reports about corruption, according to Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF).

“These attacks on independent Iraqi media run counter to the progress towards democracy which the entire nation has been seeking years,” RSF said. “The future of these media has been jeopardised by heavy damages awards. How can press freedom survive in Iraq in such an environment?” It added, “We urge the Iraqi authorities to protect independent media and to respect article 38 of the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees free expression.”

Libel suits were brought against the newspaper Al-Bayanat al-Jedida on March 15 and March 30 by the petroleum minister and the head of the company El Mansour over articles published on March 5 and March 12 about alleged corruption within the ministry and at a petroleum depot north of Baghdad. The minister is demanding 500 million dinars (315,000 euros) in damages. The head of El Mansour is suing the newspaper for 300 million dinars (189,000 euros).

The head of the state railway company sued the privately-owned television station Al Diyar Sat TV on April 19 over a report about poor working conditions for its employees in Anbar province. An appeal court has confirmed a damages award of 10 million dinars (6,300 euros).

“These lawsuits are part of a government-orchestrated campaign against the media designed to silence free expression,” Emad al Ebadi, a representative of Al Diyar Sat TV, told RSF. “The attacks on journalists are recurring, and for a reason. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and President Jalal Talabani recently said they wanted to ‘do away with’ aggressive media, meaning media that do not support the government. But that means all free and independent media.”

On May 5, trade minister Abdel Fellah Hassan al Sudani brought a series of complaints against two independent dailies, Al-Parlament and Al-Mashriq, which published a report by the Public Integrity Commission (an independent body tasked with combating corruption). The report implicated him in alleged corruption involving members of parliament. In the three complaints he brought against Al Mashriq, he demanded a total of about 100,000 euros in damages.

Al-Mashriq editor Fouad Razi told RSF, “These steps are extremely dangerous as they limit the freedom to publish and the right of access to information. The minister decided to sue one of the most important independent dailies in a bid to assure himself of favourable coverage.”

The sum the trade minister is demanding in damages from Al-Parlament is 50 million dinars (31,500 euros) and concerns an article that was published on April 20.

In a statement, Al-Parlament said, “The media should be free of political and partisan intervention and pressure, which run counter to free expression. These violations, which are contrary to the government’s undertaking to protect journalists, will not dissuade us from trying to publish honest and fair information. Al-Parlament’s independence is an essential basis. Al-Parlament will continue to fulfil this duty despite harassment, difficulties and obstacles.”

Asked for his views on these developments, Nabil Jassam, a professor at Baghdad University’s department of media studies, told RSF that the government was exploiting a 1969 law known as “Law 111,” which provides for punishments ranging from fines to the death penalty, in order to restrict press freedom.

“The current government has not changed the section of this law that concerns free expression, although it ought to undertake to do this for the sake of progress for human rights in Iraq,” Jassam said. “Its aim is to reduce freedom of the press,” he added.

Date posted: May 12, 2009 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 234