Press freedom law in Iraq: a step backwards?

Controversy has erupted in media circles in Iraq concerning the new media draft law to protect journalists. Signed by the Iraqi government and presented to the parliament for approval, the law has been rejected by some and welcomed by others. Many have reservations regarding specific articles, claiming it will threaten press freedoms at a time when abuses against journalists are on the rise.
By HUSSEIN ALI DAOUD (translated from the original Arabic)
Iraq Protecting Journalists

IRAQ, Aug 18, 2009 (MENASSAT) — According to the Iraqi government, the media  draft law is an attempt to defend journalists, provide them with security, protection and the ability to execute their professions freely and safely, while insuring their rights.

A spokesman for the government, Ali al-Dabbagh, says that all the governmental administrations and public institutions will be responsible for providing journalists with necessary services to perform their duties such as the right to get information, news, data, and statistics from their sources. It will also mean that journalists have to respect the privacy of their sources, unless in cases where this would contradict the law. 

But media rights NGOs in Iraq, as well as most journalists, were not pleased with these provisions, interpreting the draft law as an indirect attempt to control the media in Iraq and suppress journalists.

Who defines the journalist?

Hasan Radi, a member of the Association for the Defense of Journalists’ Rights in Iraq, told MENASSAT, “The law hinders freedom of media and press in the country and imposes censorship by affiliating all the media outlets with one organization - the syndicate. The definition of a journalist by law is a person who is a member of the Journalists’ Syndicate. Anyone who is not member is not protected by the law. This goes against the idea of diversity and the freedom of choice a journalist should have to either be member of the syndicate or a freelancer.”

“The law is supposed to define the journalist as a person working with a media institution who is dedicated to the media. Not recognizing those who are not members of the syndicate is a new kind of dictatorship, especially since everybody knows that Arab syndicates don’t work to protect journalists and media workers since they fall under the control of the authorities one way or another.”

“Other negative points in the draft law place journalists at the mercy of the government by stating that, 'a journalist cannot be arrested for his journalistic work except by a legal decision.' This expression is vague and can be interpreted in different ways depending on the mood or the interests of the government and officials, who are constantly the subject of scandals uncovered by the media,” Radi said.

A step back

Although this law came in response to a demand by human rights NGOs in Iraq two years ago, after the escalating campaign against Iraqi journalists, some organizations have said that issuing the law will limit freedom of the press.

Ziad al-Oujaili, director of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, told MENASSAT, “The law the government presented to the parliament came at a time when it wanted to limit freedoms of the media and to return to centralization, inclusiveness and appointing a sole authority for journalists–– the syndicate. This takes us back to the scenario that was present before the American invasion of Iraq, where the Information Ministry controlled the media and most publications.”

He pointed out that “those calling for the draft law, both inside and outside the government, state the positive points of the law, such as helping the families of  journalists [who died on] duty, while ignoring the articles preventing journalists from expressing their opinion. We encourage compensating our victims but not at the expense of our freedoms. In fact, more than 250 journalists were killed in the last few years, while 10,000 journalists were threatened.”

On the other hand, the Journalists' Syndicate has another point of view and sees the law as beneficial to journalists who suffered in the last six years from the American occupation, from horrible acts of violence, without any protection.

Head of the Syndicate, Mou’ayad al-Lami, told MENASSAT, “The freedom of the media law is unique in the entire Arab world, upholding an important issue where the government is guaranteed to protect journalists from danger, increasing freedoms and compensating the families of the deceased.”

“Few people object to the law, including some journalists’ organization which are not democratic and aim for profit, where they have no democratic basis in organizing elections and choosing members, and hence they attack the law just for the fun of it.”

Al-Lami added, “The law includes important and positive articles forcing media institutions to sign contracts with journalists and forbidding them from firing workers without giving them prior notice and compensation. The law also considers the journalist a governmental employee and therefore he or she can’t be attacked.”

The draft-law

Some of the main articles of the draft law include:

Article 1: Any attack against a journalist on duty is considered an attack on a governmental employee on duty. The attacker is punished by the legal penalty imposed for a governmental employee.

Article 2: The journalist cannot be arrested for his journalistic work, except by a legal decision and after notifying the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate and in the presence of a representative at the investigation.

Article 3: The journalist has the right to receive  information held by the governmental institutions and public departments to transmit them to the public. The concerned parties have no right to refuse unless the disclosure of the information will cause greater damage to the national interest than if it is not published.

Article 4: The journalist has the right not to disclose his sources unless the information is crucial in preventing a crime or uncovering the perpetrators. The decision should be issued by the concerned court, and no complaint will be accepted after three months of publishing.

Article 5: It is forbidden to confiscate journalistic equipment except by a court order, on the condition that it is necessary to prevent a crime or investigate it.

Article 6: The government ensures the establishment of a task force to protect journalists and media institutions and investigate crimes against them.

Article 7: Security forces are to carry out immediate investigations in the case where a journalist is threatened or attacked, and efforts must be made to punish the perpetrators.

Article 8: Journalists are allowed to perform their jobs without any interference from security forces without a legal document.

Article 9: The government ensures allocating a compensation salary for the families of martyrs.

Article 10: The government ensures allocating a salary for journalists who become handicapped as a result of an injury caused by their work,  if the handicap prevents the journalist from working.

Article 11: The government ensures medical care for journalists, and free treatment, inside or outside the country, if the injury or handicap was due to journalistic work.

Article 12: The heads of local and foreign media institutions in Iraq are bound to sign work contracts with journalists according to a form presented by the syndicate ensuring the rights and the obligations of the journalist and the institution they works with. A copy of the contract is kept in the records of the syndicate.