The Media in Iraq

Restrictions on Press Freedom

Iraq's media can work freely – on paper. But the reality is often quite different, as young Iraqi journalists emphasized on a recent visit to Germany. One major problem is the prevalence of violence. Gernot Jaeger reports

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photo: AP
Iraqi newspaper 'Al-Zaman'

​​Iraq is still one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. This year more than 30 media professionals were killed there – reporters, photographers and cameramen. And not all of them, by any means, fell victim to attacks by Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Eight journalists were killed by American fire. Nonetheless, after the end of the "official hostilities", the greatest danger is seen as coming from radical or criminal groups. Thus, it means little that on paper there are no restrictions on reporting in Iraq.

Fear of revenge prompts self-censorship

"There is no actual control or censorship," says reporter Sahr Al Samurai from the government-friendly daily Al-Sabah: "But the censorship that used to come from outside has been replaced by a censorship from within."

Her colleague Abd Al Sahra Zaki, editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Mada, puts it in a nutshell: "Self-censorship exists," he says. "Many groups in Iraq react violently when criticized. Thus, we journalists have to be very careful." The more closely the newspapers are associated with the American occupiers, the more dangerous it is.

At the same time, the scope of the market is unclear. In Baghdad alone there are more than 80 newspapers, according to estimates, many of them nothing but the propaganda organs of political groups. Eighteen months ago there was a virtual newspaper boom. But not even half the papers have survived.

Elections at the end of January

Sahr Al Samurai and Abd Al Sahra Zaki were part of the first group of Iraqi journalists to visit Germany, invited by the German State Department. The goal of the project, organized by the Deutsche Welle Akademie, was to show the Iraqis how a pluralistic media system functions. Iraq still has a long way to go to achieve such a system.

The country's first step in this direction is supposed to be the parliamentary election set for January 30 – the first free election after decades of dictatorship. Seventy-three political parties and alliances are expected to take part.

The Shiite bloc "United Iraqi Alliance", consisting of more than twenty parties and groups, is expected to be especially successful. The two major Kurdish parties are joining forces, while Acting Prime Minister Ijad Allawi, with good connections to the USA, is betting on his own list.

Shamil Hamdallah takes a critical view of Iraq's prospects, even after the election. "Our politicians have big ideas and promise a lot, but they put little into effect," says the journalist from the newspaper Al-Taachi, which is associated with the "Democratic Party of Kurdistan". "So far the United States has also promised a lot and done little."

That is why he still has trouble believing in really fair and free elections. "If the radical Islamic fundamentalists win, will the USA accept it? I don't think so," he says. "Anyway, at the moment we don't have any politicians capable of governing without the Americans."

Limited freedoms

The new parliament is a temporary solution in any case. As soon as a new constitution is passed, a new election is supposed to be held, perhaps as soon as late 2005. At least the media will be able to report freely on these first free elections – even if this freedom has its limits.

For example, the Arab newspaper Ash-Sharq al-Ausat had to close its Baghdad office temporarily in mid-December. Islamic extremists had threatened a terror strike unless the newspaper wrote about a supposed rebel leader in Falluja.

The Baghdad office of the pan-Arab television network Al Jazeera was also closed down – this time by the Iraqi provisional government, which accused the network of aggravating the violence in Iraq.

And so the situation remains touch and go for journalists. The group Iraqi journalists will have plenty of work waiting for them when they return home – the election campaign has begun.

And then they will be miles removed from the conditions they came to know in Germany. "The difficult security situation puts restrictions on our reporting," says Abd Al Sahra Saki. "We simply can't move freely."

Gernot Jaeger

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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