The Baghdad bureau chief for Radio Free Iraq, part of the global Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast network, was killed by a member of state security last Saturday.
Eye witnesses all agreed that the security officer was guilty; he was a member of the presidential guard working at a checkpoint in Baghdad’s affluent, security-conscious Jadriya neighbourhood, which is near the heavily fortified Green Zone, or International Zone, where most foreigners live and work, also the site of the US Embassy.
Apparently the journalist, Mohammed Bdaiwi Owaid al-Shammari, 47, was trying to enter a part of Jadriya that the security guard told him he could not. An argument ensued and al-Shammari was shot.
The reaction of other Iraqi journalists was swift, roundly condemning the incident. International groups like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders also reacted, issuing statements saying that journalists should be allowed to conduct their activities without being threatened or intimidated.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki even visited the murder scene and was quick to make statements that were welcomed by al-Shammari’s fellow journalists. Al-Maliki stated that the culprit should be brought to justice as quickly as possible. Some were surprised by al-Maliki’s statements though – in the past, he has not always reacted in this way to journalists’ deaths, injuries or imprisonment.
Once again journalists also began to debate the merits of Iraq’s Journalists Rights Law, which has been widely criticised. Although many say there are massive holes in the legislation, it is supposed to protect journalists and provide for the families of murdered or injured journalists.
When Iraqi security forces attack journalists it’s a sign of the culture here, says local journalist Ibrahim Saleh. “A lot of people – and the security forces in particular – are unaware of the importance of the fourth estate,” Saleh said. “They don’t understand what journalists do or what it means to be one. Security officials treat journalists with indifference and that attitude actually comes from the top, from the higher authorities who also feel the same way about journalists.”
“The authorities issue instructions to their security officers that they should deal with journalists in a positive way,” Saleh explained further. “But they also tell them not to give them any quotes, not to let them in anywhere and not to let anyone take any pictures. So the security officers think they’re doing the right thing, but in fact they have a very negative impression of a journalist’s work.”
“There is freedom of expression in Iraq but there are also red lines,” comments Mustafa Sadoun, another Iraqi journalist. “Journalists are attacked every day. Sometimes they are accused of libel or slander and brought to court. Other times, extremists target them. That seems to be something the government has in common with the extremists.”
The former complaint is something that journalists\' advocacy group, reporters Without Borders, emphasized in a recent open letter. In a February letter addressed to Iraq’s most senior judiciary, Reporters Without Borders wrote that: “As well as the alarming decline in the security climate in the past few months, journalists are now exposed to such new obstacles as arrest and prosecution on spurious grounds”.
“We urge the authorities to stop using defamation complaints in an attempt to get the judicial apparatus to gag critics. The judicial proceedings that have been initiated against these journalists must be abandoned,” the organization wrote in another open letter published this week.
One of their main concerns was an arrest warrant issued for journalist, Sarmad Al-Tai. “His arrest, the first of its kind since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, has set an extremely dangerous precedent for freedom of information in Iraq,” the organization said.
“Iraqi society has become used to oppression and blind adherence to dictators,” argues journalist Ghaith Abdul-Hamid. “The idea of freedom is an unfamiliar one to most Iraqis; they do not understand it. It’s perceived as a state where there are no restrictions and no limitations. But freedom in Iraq, under a kind of surreal democracy, is more blurred. The real situation lies somewhere between imagination and reality. And,” he added, “al-Shammari was killed because our nation does not have the right ethics yet.”