Attacks on Iraqi Media Call Press Freedom Into Question

Following attacks on the offices of three different Iraqi newspapers on April 1, press freedom in Iraq is once again called into question, writes Mushreq Abbas.

al-monitor Iraqi journalists inspect the equipment after attack by an armed group at the newspaper's headquarters of Addustour newspaper in Baghdad April 2, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani.

Topics covered

violence, journalism, islamists

Apr 5, 2013

Earlier this month, the Iraqi media experienced two consecutive shocks that not only revealed how vulnerable the security situation is in a city like Baghdad, but also shed light on the plight of Iraqi journalists, who have been treading through a minefield for ten years.

At first, many thought that it was big April Fool’s joke. Journalists repeated reports on Facebook and Twitter that an armed group had stormed the newspapers’ offices and attacked journalists with various types of weapons.

The news circulating has been confusing: “An unidentified armed group barged into the buildings of the Iraqi dailies al-Mustaqbal, al-Nas and The Parliament, attacked their crew with knives and batons and threatened to break into other newspaper buildings.”

Colleagues began to contact each other, and it soon emerged that these armed groups are affiliated with the Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, whose followers oppose the "false" information published in these dailies about their spiritual leader.

Confusing questions were raised that night by the Iraqi press. Where did the half-million soldiers and policemen that were on every corner in Baghdad go? Where are the security plans, announced by the government on a daily basis? What about the hundreds of checkpoints, which the gunmen drove through on their way to storm the newspapers’ buildings and attack journalists?

The answer came as something of a tragedy the next day: The burned-out newspapers — whose staff were attacked — used the statements of the cleric in their headlines. This is the same cleric whose supporters are accused of attacking them.

The afflicted Iraqi newspapers are committed to a new story: “The groups that carried out the operation do not belong to Sarkhi.” They devoted a good part of their front pages to clearing the cleric of the "rumor" that caused this confusion, and denied what they had published on the previous day about the supporters of a certain cleric who intend to storm a sacred Shiite shrine in Karbala.

The catastrophe on the day following the attack was worse than the attack itself. It seems that the Iraqi press has realized — after the actions of a group of gunmen that injured four journalists, destroyed three newspaper offices and sent threatening letters to local news agencies and TV stations — that the price that they could pay for writing about radical local movements are too high. They also probably realized that all security troops deployed in the streets will not be able to protect a newspaper building or media organization, and will not provide a single Iraqi journalist with a threat-free environment.

Indeed, it is a high cost. Yet, it seriously puts the Iraqi press to the test once again. The red lines that may seem at first surprising are in fact more pronounced than the headline, and protection by the state is less meaningful than that by political parties.

On the third day, Sarkhi announced that he was in no way involved in these actions. His supporters said that they are being targeted by security campaigns which aim to throw them in prison because their beliefs contradict those of the government. As a result, they do not have the strength nor the magnanimity to implement such attacks.

Since 2003, the most tangible improvement in Iraq has been the small amount of freedom the press has been given. The attacks have cost the media in Iraq dearly, undermining the very freedoms for which they have fought.

Mushreq Abbas is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. An author and journalist who has worked in the media for 15 years, he holds a degree in political science from Baghdad University. Besides writing studies and articles that covered Iraqi crises and publishing in the local, regional and foreign media, Abbas has worked since 2003 in the Iraqi media sector and co-founded media companies. He also produced a number of documentaries for different media and has managed Al-Hayat’s office in Iraq since 2005.

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