On Friday afternoon in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, thousands of protestors gathered - as has become their habit over the past few months. As was also usual they chanted their demands for political reform and anti-government slogans.
After an hour or so, the protestors decided to cross the Jumhuriyah bridge, near the square, and break into the highly protected Green Zone area, which houses Iraq’s government buildings and many foreign embassies, again.
Last time the protestors made it into the Green Zone and stayed for two days. However this time, security forces guarding the Green Zone did not let the protestors through. Instead they used tear gas and rubber bullets – even some live ammunition was used and it is estimated four people lost their lives – to disperse the protestors; the demonstrations ended around two hours later.
This time though, members of the local media who had accompanied the demonstrations were among the security forces’ victims. A statement from the Metro Centre for Defending Journalists' Rights said more than 13 journalists were attacked while they were trying to cover the demonstrations. And the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq said that it knew of 14 journalists from Iraqi, Arab and foreign media who were attacked on the day. Among them were representatives from the Sulaymaniyah-based NRT channel, Al Mada, Hona Baghdad, Al Baghdadia, anbTV and Al Nahar TV.
The Association also reported that Mohammed Sarmad, a reporter with the local satellite channel, Hona Baghdad (“Here is Baghdad” in English)was shot.
One of the very few journalists who was able to reach the Green Zone with the first wave of protestors was Munir al-Jibouri, a reporter for the Al Mada TV channel. No cameraperson was able to accompany him so he shot footage on his mobile phone.
“I went to cover the demonstrations as I do every Friday,” al-Jibouri told NIQASH. “We were all surprised when the security forces protecting the Green Zone refused to let the protestors past. A group of protestors managed to break through and then thousands of others followed them – but everyone was so surprised at the size of the military forces there, waiting for them.”
At the start of the break-in, the security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets. But as things seemed to get more chaotic, some of them began firing live rounds.
“I was carrying the channel’s logo but the security guys targeted me deliberately with a tear gas grenade,” says al-Jibouri, who adds that he tried to tell them that he was a journalist but that they ignored him. Al-Jibouri then lost consciousness and awoke later in hospital – he found out that one of the protestors had dragged him to safety.
“The security forces’ mind set is still the same,” al-Jibouri remarked. “They consider journalists the enemy, traitors or spies.”
Freelancer Majid Abdul Reda, who works as a cameraman, filming events then selling them to a variety of TV channels, says he was taking a picture of a protestor who had fallen on the ground. As he was doing so a soldier hit him from behind and he too fell. The soldier then began to try and destroy Reda’s camera. Reda says he tried to stop the man but the soldier pointed his gun at the hapless journalist.
“Who is going to compensate me,” complains Reda, noting that he believes the security forces target journalists more when they are covering events that the government does not want covered, like the demonstration. “That camera was worth thousands.”
Some Iraqi accounts on social media also took up the journalists’ cause. One picture widely circulated showed the reporter from NRT lying on the ground after losing his shirt. The reporter insisted on continuing his coverage while hiding behind a barrier. Other reporters were shown running with cameras amid flying rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas.
Media advocacy organisations have been expressing concerns about restrictions on media freedoms in Iraq since the beginning of the year – they have the feeling that the Iraqi government is putting more pressure on local journalists again.
In March 2016, the government closed the offices of Al Baghdadia, a channel well known for its critical position on politics and politicians and in April, the government banned the Qatar-based channel, Al Jazeera, from working in Baghdad. During the same month, the government’s Communications and Media Commission suspended the broadcasting of a political satire show, the Al Bashir Show. However the satire was able to continue broadcasting by running on the German channel, Deutsche Welle.
Additionally journalists and other media professionals have continued to be targeted. A reporter and cameraman working for Al Sharqiya channel in Diyala were killed by unidentified gunmen in January 2017 and in general, journalists continue to come under threat from officials’ security staff and extremists.
The annual press freedom ranking compiled by international media advocacy organization, Reporters Without Borders, seemed to confirm this. Iraq slipped from 156th out of 180 countries, to 158th on the list in 2016.