Photographers Detained, Harassed in Iraq

Photographers in Iraq are being harassed and arrested, writes Omar al-Jaffal, suggesting that authorities now may fear cameras more than arms.

al-monitor Reuters Iraqi photographer Ceerwan Aziz lugs his equipment to an assignment, Aug. 12, 2008. Photo by REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen.

Topics covered

press freedom, iraq, human rights

Dec 9, 2012

Cameras scare the security forces more than arms. This fact is being echoed on a daily basis by photographers in Iraq. Cameras have led to punishment and detainment at the hands of Iraqi security services, which turned Iraq into a large barracks that no one is allowed to approach. Taking photos there is not an option, under the pretext of "fear for national security" and the "safety of citizens and leaders of the homeland!"

Story of a Declared Arrest

Late last August, my colleagues Safaa Khalaf and Safaa Thiab — both poets and journalists — and I were arrested on charges of photographing ancient mosques in the al-Midan neighborhood of central Baghdad. Possessing a camera was a heavy charge that brought before the intelligence services of the 11th division of the Ministry of Defense. There, one of the senior officers — who did not mention his name "out of fear for his safety" — did not hesitate to accuse us of disrupting democracy in the country because "we are not abiding by the law." He also didn’t hesitate to describe me as a psycho, given the length of my hair and my modern clothing. But what is the law that we failed to respect? What is the relationship between my hairstyle and modern clothing and mental illness? The (senior) officer did not bother to answer.

After seven hours of standing in front of the wall and being naively questioned, our camera’s memory card was completely destroyed and we were released, after signing a pledge not to carry out any terrorist acts. This was despite the fact that we showed the officer our press IDs as a proof that we are journalists and that we were filming heritage sites in Baghdad. However, this did not prevent them from dealing with us in a rigorous manner, nor did it lead the “protectors of the homeland" to reduce the number of insults they showered upon us.

This arbitrary detention pushed me further investigate the hardships that Iraq's photographers are going through and to examine the way they perceive the actions of the government. "The government does not need to issue decisions to prevent photographers from taking photos," says photographer and journalist Hatef Farhan. Photography "is already forbidden," in Iraq, he says. Farhan stresses that "every security agent looks at a camera with suspicion and obsession,” adding that these issues relating to the authorities’ fear of photography and documentation is "inherited from previous eras."

Meanwhile, photographer Ahmed Mahmoud believes that the decisions imposed by the government regarding banning photography are "arbitrary, random and reflect fears regarding exposing negative aspects [of the country] to the public." Mahmoud pointed out that "it is much easier to carry a weapon in Iraq than it is to carry a camera. People are used to [weapons], and they accept seeing them in the streets."

According to photojournalist Saadallah al-Khaldi, "not only has the government prevented photographers from taking photos, but it has also specified the places where photos can be taken — such as Zora and Abu Nawas gardens — in order to cover up the misery that is plaguing other devastated areas ridden with militants."

Photographer Mohammed Abbas has a different opinion about the government’s photography ban. According to him, "decisions to ban photography are sometimes practical and arise out of fear of terrorist operations."

However, photographer Ali Fahdawi disagrees with Abbas. According to him, "there is no logical explanation or legal paragraph in the articles of the constitution regarding banning photographers and press coverage." Abbas says that "despite the existence of authorizations to carry cameras and media IDs, most [photojournalists] run the risk insults, beatings and the destruction or confiscation of their cameras. This is especially true of those working for media organizations with a different line from that of the government. ”

Abbas said he was convinced that "cameras scare security forces more than firearms, given that security forces cannot reciprocate with cameras."

"Yes... Carrying weapons in Baghdad is easier than carrying cameras," confirms the director of the Center for Press Freedom in Baghdad, Ziad Ajili. He agrees with these photographers and adds that "the security authorities limit the movement of photographers and journalists across Iraq." Ajili pointed out that, "Strangely enough, we feign democracy, and the government says it respects freedom of the press and expression, but no photojournalist can possibly think of carrying a camera without prior (military) approval."

Random detention

"They arrested me at a military barracks because I was approaching an area in which taking photos was prohibited, despite the absence of any clear sign warning people," says Ahmed Mahmoud speaking about his arrest. He added that "this detention was a random improvised act, carried out with the aim of terrorizing me because the area was originally for a government reconstruction project." Abbas tells several stories of harassment on the part of security agents in Baghdad. "They once damaged the photos on my camera memory. They once beat me for photographing a civilian demonstration that started from Mutanabi Street and went to Tahrir Square, and the security agent threatened to smash my camera.

"I often hide the camera's memory card in places that are difficult to find, especially when I take important photos," Abbas added.

Farhan says that “every photographer has been subjected to harassment or arrest,” adding that “this has become part of the life story of any photographer.” He explained that “fear and security concerns are behind this manner of dealing with photographers, especially after confessions of terrorists were broadcast on television and taking photos was part of the preparation phase for these operations.”

Fahdawi says that the “security plan” is used as an excuse to justify arrests and harassment.

But the most serious charge is the one made against Khalidi, [who was accused of] working with media outlets against the Iraqi government.” Khalidi revealed that he was arrested by the “Iraqi army intelligence’s fifth division.”

The image as an accusation

Photographers gathered in a small circle during a demonstration against the authorities in Baghdad as a result of the abuses they face from Iraqi security members. Guns were directed at them and seemed ready to shoot, maybe penetrating someone’s chest or creating tension in Baghdad.

This is what Khalidi photographed, prompting the premiership to file a charge against him of tarnishing the image of the government.

“I published a number of photos. As a result, I demanded from the premiership that I be tried in the al-Karkh Court (Palace of Justice), but I was released for lack of evidence.” This is how Khalidi was tried for [publishing] photos that showed security practices that violate the laws.

On the other hand, Mahmoud appears to be bolder. He took advantage of the advertisements made by political Islam parties before each election. In Basra, he took a picture of a placard that talks about the revolution of Imam Hussein. The placard looked elegant and was professionally set against the wall. But the problem is that under the placard that refers to the revolution of Imam Hussein sleeps a poor man in rugged clothes.

“The flagrant contradictions between the bright slogans and bitter Iraqi reality have shown the harsh and neglected poverty under the government’s banners and bright advertisements.” These are the contradictions shown in the photos he took, and which “caused resentment by some government officials.”

However Mahmoud asserts, “I do not care about their resentment.” Farhan faces difficulty publishing his scathing photos, so has resorted to posting them on social networking sites “in a last attempt by us to expose the truth of what is going on.”

Abbas created a modest account on YouTube, where he uploads videos that sometimes contain “topics on civil demonstrations” which “raise the ire of those in power.”

The government executes documentation

These photographers search for a document, an image that will remain forever and be passed over by future generations as a document about an Iraq that lived through a security, political, sectarian and social crisis. But is the Iraqi government trying to execute the document?

Fahdawi says that “the history of photography in Iraq is scant,” noting that Iraq does not have a real archive documenting the eras and stages it has gone through. He noted that “it was limited to documenting presidents, their parties and palaces.”

As for the difficulty of documentation in Iraq today and its importance, Mahmoud says that “banning photography is tantamount to concealing facts and falsifying history.” He stressed that “the government continuously wants to control everything, and it knows that a single photo can spark real anger.” He noted that “revolutions and uprisings have been sparked by a photo or video footage taken by a camera.”

Khalidi says that “a photo is history, and in the past people used to draw.”

As these photographers speak about their suffering and the authorities’ seizure of the documents they are preparing for the future, the Journalism Freedoms Observatory (JFO) in Iraq, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, published an extensive report on cases of violence and abuse suffered by journalists during the years 2010 and 2011. The observatory recorded 91 cases where field journalists were assaulted by the security forces and the Iraqi army. [According to the report], 67 journalists and media personalities were arrested and detained with varied arrest and detention periods.

Also, it has been documented that Iraq witnessed between May 2011 and 2012, “a qualitative and remarkable surge, backed by the authorities that are undertaking worrying endeavors, to control the free flow of information and put pressure on field journalists to prevent them from doing their work.”

The director of the center concludes that “freedom of the press in Iraq is merely a false claim, and the government authorities have gained control of the media through financial incentives it has provided to some journalists, such as the distribution of pieces of land and financial grants.” He said that the government “has succeeded in controlling the Iraqi Union of Journalists and made it part of the executive branch. This is reminiscent of previous methods known by the Iraqis, which were implemented alongside outright repression.

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