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iraq’s extremists impose agenda on local media

Special Correspondent
Recently gangs that allegedly follow Shiite Muslim cleric, Mahmoud al-Sarkhi, attacked four Baghdad newspapers because they didn’t like what the papers had written. How did they get through central city…
11.04.2013  |  Baghdad
At prayer in Karbala, where Shiite factions have been fighting.
At prayer in Karbala, where Shiite factions have been fighting.

Last week a group of around 50 men stormed four newspapers in Baghdad, attacking those they found in the media offices with knives and sticks and even throwing one journalist from a roof. The four newspapers’ offices – Al Parliman, Al Dostour, Al Mustaqbal and Al Nas – were attacked in broad daylight and, as some have noted, are also near military and police checkpoints.

“Clerics and tribal leaders who claimed that they were followers of the [Shiite Muslim religious leader] Mahmoud al-Sarkhi visited the newspaper offices and told us they were upset about news published on the front page that day,” a statement released by the editor-in-chief of Al Parliman after the attacks, said. “We told them that our newspaper was a professional one and that our position is neutral and objective. We also told them we were ready to publish their side of the story.”

Al Parliman staffers also told the group that the report had come from a news agency.

The stories that had upset the men were about the how religious leader al-Sarkhi was planning to go to Karbala, one of the most holy cities for Shiite Muslims because of two very important shrines there, and take over Friday prayers at one particular shrine so he could receive funds collected there.

Over the past months, tensions between the followers of al-Sarkhi – who is considered controversial because of his belief that he is more senior, spiritually, then the highest religious authority for Shiite Muslims in Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – and other Shiite Muslims have been growing. In late April 2012, there were a variety of disturbances that saw protests and some al-Sarkhi-dominated mosques were burned.

“It all started after a delegation who said that they represent al-Sarkhi visited the newspapers,” an eye-witnesses told NIQASH. “They said they were disturbed because of how the newspapers had reported on their leader.”

The group then left the building. However just about five minutes later, another group of younger men, wearing athletic clothing and carrying knives, entered the building and started to make threats and attack newspaper staff. The attackers beat journalists, damaged furnishings and computer equipment and also stole personnel records. The latter was enough to intimidate many of the journalists.

Local police reports verify this, saying the men that stormed the newspaper were carrying knives, batons and iron rods and that they beat those inside, sometimes severely.

An eye-witness, who was close to the Al Parliman offices in central Baghdad, near the Turkish embassy, even says he saw the two men carrying another by his arms and legs; they then threw him from the third floor of the building. The victim is currently in hospital with several fractures, including skull fractures.

The same kinds of scenes were repeated at the other newspapers.

A day after the incident, the offices of the cleric al-Sarkhi, issued a statement. In the statement, al-Sarkhi denied he had any intention of occupying anything in Karbala and he also said his followers were not the ones who attacked the newspaper offices.

One journalist from one of the newspapers told NIQASH some of al-Sarkhi’s followers also contacted him personally after the attacks. “They apologized and asked me not to give this incident more attention than it really deserves,” he said.

Some of the newspapers attacked were unable to publish afterwards. However others appeared to give in and they carried more complimentary headlines about al-Sarkhi shortly afterwards.

“Since 2003 criminals who target journalists and the media have found that they can do so with impunity, they are not often prosecuted,” Baghdad journalist Uday Hatem, who is also the head of the Society for Defence of Press Freedom in Iraq, wrote in a statement after the attacks. “That encourages these kinds of groups to attack media institutions, even in areas that are supposedly secure and under government control.” Hatem called for the culprits to be named and prosecuted.

Iraq’s Deputy Minister of the Interior, Adnan al-Asadi, also visited the newspaper premises that were attacked. He told reporters that “an attack like this is inappropriate in a modern society” and vowed that to bring the attackers to justice.

Local journalists had plenty of questions for al-Asadi. One of these was: how did the armed groups get close to newspaper offices, which were actually near to security checkpoints? Surely they should have been stopped.

Senior Interior Ministry officers answered that they thought the attackers got as far as they did because they were carrying knives and what appeared to be ordinary tools, rather than weapons.

It seems unlikely that conspiracy theorists who may wish to claim the government was complicit and using this as an excuse to attack press freedoms in Iraq, have much of a point to make here. One could well assume that the Shiite Muslim-dominated government would support the highest Shiite religious authority in the land, rather than someone like al-Sarkhi.

A week has passed since the attacks but, given the complicated political situation in Iraq, it remains doubtful that the attackers will ever be brought to justice or that anyone will find out for certain who was behind the mob.

What is clear though s that this is another blow to Iraqi journalists and their safety and security. While there is more openness and pluralism inside the Iraqi media today than there was before 2003, the price being paid by many journalists for doing their jobs remains high.

The US-based organisation, the Committee to Protect Journalists, confirms this: “Iraq\'s impunity rate - or the degree to which perpetrators have escaped prosecution for murdering the journalists - is the worst in the world. It is 100 percent. Even today, as Iraq has moved beyond conflict, authorities have shown no interest in investigating these murders,” the organisation noted in March 2013.

Officials are silent because of the ongoing conflicts between Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian groups. On the whole, laws pertaining to freedom of the press and journalists’ rights and security remain vague and some aspects of them still date back to the Saddam Hussein era. Observers say that major religious powers also still try to muzzle the press and that they tend to be so powerful that nobody dares hold them accountable.

“This incident just underlines the fact that the situation for journalists in Iraq is still critical,” Hatem told NIQASH. “And it’s especially so, now that we know that violent, extremist groups here are targeting the media, and trying to impose a fundamentalist religious agenda on it.”