An Iraqi government commission had secretly decided and ordered this month closing over 40 radio and television stations, allegedly because they lack permits. But once exposed by a journalists group, and followed by media exposure and professional demonstrations, the panel has eased its assault.
Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a French-based international nongovernmental organization advocating both press and informational freedom, complained of the Iraqi action earlier this week. It reported of the decision by the Communications and Media Commission (CMC) to mute 47 radio and television stations, most of which are nonpartisan, and a few that often are critical of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s regime. The stations include affiliates of the BBC and Voice of America.
The Washington Post followed with a later story saying Iraq had decided to delay its efforts regarding 44 stations. RWB’s report included a document in Arabic which carried a numbered list of 44 stations, plus a separate list of 19. It wasn’t clear what the separate list involved.
According to RWB, the demonstrating journalists are also “calling for the repeal of the Law on Journalists’ Rights, which parliament adopted in August 2011 and which is widely regarded as violating the rights it claims to defend.”
That law protects only Iraqi journalists, not foreigners, from attack. It also guards journalists’ anonymous sources “unless the law requires the source is revealed,” in other words, not protecting them from government. The law also states freedom of the press can be waived if news reports “threaten citizens or make provocative or aggressive statements.” Such generalities put the power of interpretation ominously with the seated government.
Iraq has proved a highly dangerous place for journalists. According to RWB:
At least 77 journalists and media assistants have been kidnapped in Iraq since March 2003. Twenty-three of them have been murdered, 40 have been released and 13 are still being held by their abductors. In most cases, months have gone by without any news of them. The authorities have proved incapable of either freeing the hostages or conducting police investigations into the kidnappings. There is now less and less hope of the victims ever being found alive.
Iraq’s fees for news outlets’ permits are expensive, and would seem especially prohibitive for small, independent outlets and websites. Permits range from $180,000 to $1.5 million. Also, RWB noted that news groups have varied statuses as far as needing permits:
The BBC and Voice of America say their employees are not currently encountering any problems with the authorities, and that they are in the process of working with the CMC to renew their licenses. Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language station funded by the United States, said it was very surprised to learn that it was on the CMC list and insists that it already has a valid license.
Even with the permits, Iraqi freedom of the press remains a fragile process. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights provides press liberty unconditionally. The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The Iraqi constitution‘s press freedom is conditional:
The State shall guarantee in a way that does not violate public order and morality:
A. Freedom of expression using all means.
B. Freedom of press, printing, advertisement, media and publication.
C. Freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and this shall be regulated by law.
So, the state “shall guarantee” press freedom “in a way that does not violate public order and morality.” Here’s two problems with those conditions:
First, what if the “state” decides your news article or broadcast provided information that was accurate–e.g. about actually closing some of the country’s radio and TV stations–but the public got so upset that riots occurred? It seems the state could interpret that the press’s accurate reports are illegal due to causing disorder, and use that as rationale for shutting down your press outlet.
Second, Iraq is an Islamic country whose constitution states clearly that Islam is the basis of its lawmaking. Section One, Article 2 states:
First: Islam is the official religion of the State and is a foundation source of legislation:
A. No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam
B. No law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy.
C. No law may be enacted that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms
stipulated in this Constitution.
The constitution goes on to provide “the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.”
But with Islam as the basis for lawmaking, it appears that any news report somehow opposing Islamic religious practice could be judged illegal. That would require that any foreign reporter be intimately aware of Islam and its interpretations by government.
Radio and TV stations have 45 days from June 25 to obtain permits. Meanwhile, an effort is on to knock out the Law on Journalists’ Rights. RWB notes:
The campaign for its repeal is being led by the Iraqi Journalists’ Rights Defence Association. More than 700 journalists signed an appeal to supreme court president Madhat Al-Mahmud (registered as petition No. 34 on 26 April, according to uragency.net) to overturn the law on the grounds that it violates articles 13, 14, 38 and 46 of the constitution and international conventions ratified by Iraq, including article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Can the United States, whose invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein led to the new Iraqi constitution, influence Al-Maliki’s regime and help guarantee more press freedom? Yes and no. The U.S. is still pouring money into Iraq, as much as $6 billion for 2012. It could threaten to withdraw those funds, or part of them, unless Al-Maliki cooperates on press liberties. But seeing President Obama’s unprecedented legal assault on whistleblowers in the U.S. and his administration’s avoidance of transparency, such activism from America in Iraq appears doubtful.