Democracy in Iraq Depends on Press Freedom

Amid a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, the international community must help Iraqi journalists maintain the free flow of information.

Mourners carry the coffin of a demonstrator killed during protests in Najaf, Iraq, on Dec. 7.
Mourners carry the coffin of a demonstrator killed during protests in Najaf, Iraq, on Dec. 7. Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images

“A group of armed men wearing black uniforms stormed into my house in Baghdad and abducted me,” Iraqi blogger Shojaa Fares al-Khafaji told me a few days after his early-morning kidnapping by an Iraqi militia in October. “They took me to a remote location overlooking the Tigris River and questioned me about my work, my family, and even my car. … They knew I have a blog and I am certain that was the main reason for my abduction.”

Khafaji’s captors ultimately released him, but urged him to keep his mouth shut. He has chosen to live up to his first name—which is Arabic for “brave”—and continue writing his blog in the face of government repression. But his ordeal was not an unusual one for an Iraqi journalist, and most are not as determined to risk their lives to continue reporting.

Clean Brotherhood, Khafaji’s popular blog, reports chiefly on politics and corruption in Iraq. It has also covered the ongoing mass protests over unemployment, a lack of basic services, and government corruption that broke out in Baghdad in October and have spread to other southern Iraqi cities. He has published footage of security forces using tear gas against protesters and pictures of protesters who have suffered beatings.

The Iraqi authorities have been trying to avoid drawing publicity to the protests by creating a de facto media blackout. They have repeatedly shut down the internet, raided and banned broadcasters, and forcibly barred journalists from covering the demonstrations, leaving the world largely in the dark about the fate of millions of people. Iraqis have had enough of such treatment. Barely five years ago, armed men in black uniforms under the banner of the Islamic State took control of television and radio stations, rounded up journalists, and created a monopoly over information in the city of Mosul. The international community should push for a post-Islamic State Iraq in which information flows freely, empowering Iraqis to shape their country’s future.

The Iraqi government’s heavy-handed security response to the protests has left more than 400 people dead and nearly 20,000 injured, spreading a widespread sense of fear of the armed forces among local reporters. This is especially true of local militia groups, which allege that journalists are instigating the violence. Two journalists have been reported killed so far. (Iraq has historically been one of the deadliest countries for journalists: Some 188 have been killed since 1994, according to data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Security forces have briefly detained, beaten, and seized equipment from reporters to prevent them from covering the protests. Several journalists have left Baghdad for either Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad for fear of militias. “Many journalists feel persecuted,” said Jumana Mumtaz, a board member of the independent National Union of Journalists in Iraq. “They have left Baghdad because they are afraid of the attacks on broadcasters and the assaults and arrests of colleagues. Even those who left Baghdad are afraid of speaking out. Without media or internet, nobody will know what’s happening in Iraq.”

Iraq relied heavily on Iran-backed militias to defeat the Islamic State. After they helped drive the group from Iraq in December 2017, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization containing mostly Shiite militias, was integrated into the national armed forces and placed under the direct authority of the prime minister. Iraqi journalists at the time voiced their concern about the growing political and economic influence of the militias and the threat it posed to press freedom.

Militias belonging to the PMF have taken control of the trade in scrap metal from destroyed buildings and vehicles and its transport from Mosul to Iraqi Kurdistan or southern Iraq. They have also gained control over large state-owned construction and engineering companies and are suspected of imposing taxes on commerce and of involvement in oil smuggling in Mosul and Basra. But they have not only cornered parts of the economy. They have also successfully infiltrated Iraqi politics through the Fatah Alliance, which won 48 seats in the 2018 parliamentary election, becoming Iraq’s second-largest bloc after Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairun bloc. The Fatah Alliance, which is headed by the leader of the Iran-backed Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, includes the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. Militiamen from these organizations have run as candidates and won seats in the Iraqi Parliament in the 2018 election.

Iraqi journalists see militias as the main challenge to press freedom in the country. Fear of militias, and impunity for crimes against journalists in Iraq, can lead to self-censorship, all the more so in the wake of the slaying of Arkan Sharifi, a cameraman for a Kurdish broadcaster, who was stabbed to death by militiamen in 2017. Journalists in Basra faced death threats, beatings, and intimidation from local militias—forcing several of them to leave the country—merely for covering 2018 protests against deteriorating living standards in the city, where popular anger at growing Iranian influence resulted in the torching of media outlets, militias’ headquarters, and the Iranian consulate.

Despite the government’s crackdown on press freedom and the brutal crushing of the protests, protesters camped out in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square have created their own newspaper to circumvent the information blackout and the narrative spread by the state-owned media, which barely mentions the unrest, and to air the protesters’ demands, including the call for an end to foreign influence in Iraq.

The United States and the European Union have both condemned the government’s repressive tactics and have publicly supported the protesters’ right to express their grievances. The special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, even visited Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to condemn the violence and call for a national dialogue.

While these statements and gestures are steps in the right direction, the international community should place Iraqi authorities under greater scrutiny to prevent further bloodshed and combat the assault on Iraq’s democratic institutions, escalating sanctions and cuts in foreign and defense aid if state violence against protesters and media continues. The United States and other Western democracies invaded Iraq in 2003 with the stated goal of establishing democracy. They continue to provide billions of dollars in military and foreign aid to fight insurgent groups in an effort to stabilize the country, when in fact more determined and continuous support for democracy and its institutions, including free media and human rights, are necessary for a stable Iraq.

At a time when the balance of power in the post-Islamic State Middle East is rapidly changing, the survival of Iraq’s fledgling democracy depends on the preservation of liberal institutions such as the free media. If it is to survive amid a complex regional and global power struggle for influence in the Middle East—underscored by several deep socioeconomic challenges—the international community must do its utmost to help Iraqi journalists maintain the free flow of information. This will enable an open, public, and honest debate about the challenges facing the country and, more importantly, how best to resolve them.

Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras is the Middle East and North Africa representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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