The Legal Enabling Environment for Independent Media in Iraq
FEBRUARY 29, 2012
Today, CIMA and IREX hosted a roundtable discussion titled “The Legal Enabling Environment for Independent Media in Iraq.” The event featured Asos Hardi from Awene Press and Publishing Company, Odey Hatim from Society for Defending Press Freedom in Iraq, and Andrea Lemieux from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. It was moderated by Rahman Aljebouri from the National Endowment for Democracy.
Kovack discussed the IREX and Centre for Law and Democracy report Freedoms in Iraq: An Increasingly Repressive Legal Net that was published in December 2011. She noted the journalists’ rights law is the only press law in Iraq. It defines a journalist as anyone who practices journalism as a full-time job, excluding part-time journalists. Iraq media are pluralistic but not free. A diverse and dynamic media emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but recent legal developments have constrained Iraqi media, and news outlets are increasingly ethno-sectarian. Free speech in Iraq is supposed to extend to all citizens, not just journalists, but a restrictive Internet law criminalizes criticism of the state. Kovack suggested that having strong, clear laws on the books is a good foundation for freedom of media and expression in Iraq.
Hatim told the group that after 2003, Iraq had unprecedented press freedom, but since 2008 the country has experienced a crackdown on the press. This crackdown included requiring permits to write certain articles. Iraqis thought it was just a transitional phase, but the law for rights of journalists was passed in August 2011. Hatim claims the law is a combination of five press laws that were invoked under Saddam Hussein to repress media freedom. The law contradicts several international conventions signed by the Iraqi government. The centralized economy in Iraq supports pro-government newspapers; independent papers are closing down.
Lemieux reiterated Hatim’s points about the press law and spoke about the Internet law that criminalizes “harming the reputation of Iraq,” and the law can hold even Internet service providers liable. She said laws being drafted now with the intention to protect press freedoms will actually restrict them instead.
Hardi spoke about the situation of the press in Kurdistan, which issued a press law in 2007 that was different from Iraqi press law. The Kurdistan press law forbids the jailing of journalists and does not require permission to publish articles. The Kurdish law says nothing about television, radio, or the Internet, so judges look to the Iraqi law when dealing with those media. The Iraqi government has made some efforts to track activists online via Facebook, blocked some sites, and subjected bloggers and activists to offline harassment, but there is no indication the efforts are very sophisticated. Hardi believes Iraq needs international support, and that the international community should put pressure on Iraqi authorities to change the law. He said the government doesn’t care as much about how it is viewed by its citizens as it does how it is seen by its international partners.
Participants agreed that the international community could do more to pressure the Iraqi government to change the press law and that support for the training of judges and media lawyers is needed.