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Iraq journalists protest government censorship, website bans

Rally precedes campaigning for January elections

By Sameer N. Yacoub
Associated Press / August 15, 2009

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BAGHDAD - Scores of Iraqi journalists and political figures rallied yesterday to protest what they say is a political effort to censor media that follows steps to crack down on Internet sites.

The demonstration on a Baghdad street known for its book market was held under tight security, as anger builds over government initiatives that critics say are aimed at preventing a strong independent press.

Protesters carried signs that read, “Do not kill the truth,’’ and chanted: “Yes, yes to freedom. No, no to silencing journalists.’’

“It is the very duty of journalists to reveal the truth, and we are against any kind of censorship of the media,’’ said Fawzi al-Atroushi, the deputy culture minister, who attended the rally. “We are against any threats made against journalists.’’

Iraqi journalists have never enjoyed the press freedoms and protections that most of their Western colleagues receive. In recent years, journalists have been beaten and arrested by Iraqi security forces for attempting to film insurgent attacks or mass protests.

The situation has become more tense as preparations are made for political campaigning for national elections scheduled for January.

In the most recent case to provoke outrage, journalist Ahmed Abdul-Hussein was threatened with a lawsuit over editorials suggesting that an unnamed political party supported a July 28 Baghdad bank robbery in which nearly $7 million was stolen and eight security guards were killed.

The editorials offered no proof and did not name the party. But hard-line Shi’ite lawmaker and cleric Jalaluddin al-Saghir threatened to sue him over the issue.

Controversy focused on the allegation that guards for Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a senior member of the largest Shi’ite party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, were involved in the heist.

Authorities later said they discovered the stolen money in the office of a newspaper owned by the vice president.

Abdul-Mahdi acknowledged one of his guards had been charged in the robbery, but he denied any involvement and said the other allegations were politically motivated.

Reporters Without Borders welcomed the rally, which also called for a ban on the use of violence against journalists by Iraqi security forces.

“We support this peaceful protest and the journalists who are fighting for the right to work in a safe and decent environment,’’ the Paris-based advocacy group said in a statement.

Iraq’s government also announced earlier this month a plan to crack down on Internet service providers and ban sites that incite violence or carry pornography, a decision that has been strongly criticized by freedom of speech advocates as a dangerous first step toward political censorship.

Ziyad al-Khafaji of the Baghdad-based independent Journalistic Freedom Observatory said such steps are unacceptable and reminiscent of efforts by Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime to control the media.

Shi’ite cleric Mohammed Falak, a member of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, said yesterday that it was inappropriate for a newspaper to make accusations prior to the completion of an investigation.

“There is something called freedom of expression for the media, and it is a good thing,’’ Falak said. “But there should be some rules.’’

Journalists also have frequently been targeted or otherwise caught up in Iraq’s violence, with 139 killed since the March 2003 US-led invasion, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Also yesterday, US Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and General Ray Odierno during a visit to Baghdad.

McCain led a congressional delegation to Iraq on the heels of a trip to Libya to discuss the possible delivery of nonlethal defense equipment - another sign of the improving ties between the former longtime adversaries.