Iraq authorities denounced for failure to protect media

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Criticism follows raids last year on at least three news outlets by unidentified armed men and the closing down of eight television and four radio stations.

Iraqi authorities are failing to take serious action against violent attacks on local journalists, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday in a renewed call to investigate the torching of a well-known TV station in Baghdad.

Dijlah TV was set alight in August by an angry mob after airing a concert during Ashoura, a traditionally sombre day of mourning for Shia Muslims. Some of the staff have since gone into hiding. So far, none of the perpetrators has been held accountable.

“Journalists who want to cover events and political developments in an even-handed manner have less and less space to do so,” HRW senior researcher Belkis Wille told Al Jazeera. “And those that try are getting to a point where threats are becoming so acute that they have to either drop their profession or leave the country, or both.”

As a result, Wille explained, “the Iraqi public will lose the ability to access balanced information and read or encounter critical analysis of decisions that politicians on all sides are making”.

The warnings follow months of increased hostility towards local media, including raids last year on at least three news outlets by unidentified armed men and the closing down of eight television and four radio stations.

“What Dijlah has sustained is part of what many channels and media outlets are sustaining,” a correspondent at Dijlah said, speaking anonymously. “For us, it is hard to obtain information without constantly fearing for our lives.”

Some journalists, added the young reporter, are planning to leave the country permanently because of the repeated threats from both rogue and government-affiliated armed groups.

‘Target for militias’

One such person is a 28-year-old freelance journalist who was forced to flee Iraq two years ago after receiving threats for his coverage of the 2018 Basra protests, when civilians were killed in clashes with security forces.

He returned to Iraq in 2019 and has continued reporting since, but not without risks. “Being a journalist and telling the truth in Iraq means that you might be a target for the militias,” he told Al Jazeera.

Another a 28-year-old journalist – whose name was also withheld for safety reasons – said he was harassed by unidentified men in Baghdad while covering last year’s countrywide protests. “They took photos of myself and one of my colleagues.”

The risks involved in writing for an Arabic-language publication led him to report primarily for English-language outlets.

“Journalists who convey what really takes place on the ground have always felt unsafe,” he said. “This year is no different, apart from the militias who threaten, abduct and kill.”

Iran-backed militias have been repeatedly accused of killing and abducting activists, protesters and journalists.

Killings in Kurdistan

Rights groups have also condemned an increase in attacks on media in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where being critical of the leading parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – has proven dangerous.

“In the Kurdistan Region we have definitely seen spikes in attacks on the media whenever we have seen increased tensions between the main political parties, with journalists bearing the brunt for political clashes and political tensions,” said Wille.

“In the last couple of months, we’ve also seen authorities use the current situation, including the ongoing pandemic, as a justification for cracking down on free media and ongoing protests.”

In May, Kurdish authorities claimed journalists were violating COVID-19 restrictions to justify the arrest of eight journalists who had been covering anti-government protests in Duhok.

“The list of murdered journalists is long in Kurdistan,” said 31-year-old Hakeem Qaradaghi, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist based in London.

“In Kurdistan, you are pressured by political parties, partisan security forces and even tribes to give up reporting on sensitive cases. But now in the UK I am free to write and report on anything I want,” said Qaradaghi.

“I couldn’t go back to Kurdistan because I have received online threats to give up writing. If I go back, I surely face big risks including torture and killing.”

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