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Authorities threaten independent media

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns a wave of lawsuits against independent Iraqi news media in recent weeks. Three daily newspapers and a TV station have so far been sued for defamation by senior government officials over reports about corruption.

"These attacks on independent Iraqi media run counter to the progress towards democracy which the entire nation has been seeking for years," Reporters Without Borders said. "The future of these media has been jeopardised by heavy fines for damages. How can press freedom survive in Iraq in such an environment?"

Reporters Without Borders added: "We urge the Iraqi authorities to protect independent media and to respect article 38 of the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees free expression."

Libel suits were brought against the newspaper "Al Bayanat al Jedida" on 15 and 30 March 2009 by the petroleum minister and the head of the company El Mansour over articles published on 5 and 12 March about alleged corruption within the company and at a petroleum depot north of Baghdad. The minister is demanding 500 million dinars (315,000 euros) in damages. The head of El Mansour is suing the newspaper for 300 million dinars (189,000 euros).

The head of the state railway company sued the privately-owned television station Al Diyar Sat TV on 19 April over a report about poor working conditions for its employees in Anbar province. An appeal court awarded the company 10 million dinars (6,300 euros) in damages.

"These lawsuits are part of a government-orchestrated campaign against the media designed to silence free expression," Emad al Ebadi, a representative of Al Diyar Sat TV, told Reporters Without Borders. "The attacks on journalists are recurring, and for a reason. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and President Jalal Talabani recently said they wanted to 'do away with' aggressive media, meaning media that do not support the government. But that means all free and independent media."

On 5 May, trade minister Abdel Fellah Hassan al Sudani brought a series of complaints against two independent dailies, "Al Parlament" and "Al Mashriq", which published a report by the Public Integrity Commission (an independent body tasked with combating corruption). The report implicated him in alleged corruption involving members of parliament In the three complaints he brought against "Al Mashriq", he demanded a total of about 100,000 euros in damages.

"Al Mashriq" editor Fouad Razi told Reporters Without Borders: "These steps are extremely dangerous as they limit the freedom to publish and the right of access to information. The minister decided to sue one of the most important independent dailies in a bid to assure himself of favourable coverage."

The sum the trade minister is demanding in damages from "Al Parlament" is 50 million dinars (31,500 euros) and concerns an article that was published on 20 April.

In a statement, "Al Parlament" said: "The media should be free of political and partisan intervention and pressure, which run counter to free expression. These violations, which are contrary to the government's undertaking to protect journalists, will not dissuade us from trying to publish honest and fair information. 'Al Parlament's' independence is essential. 'Al Parlament' will continue to fulfil this duty despite harassment, difficulties and obstacles."

Asked for his views on these developments, Nabil Jassam, a professor at Baghdad University's department of media studies, told Reporters Without Borders that the government was exploiting a 1969 law known as "Law 111", which provides for penalties ranging from fines to the death penalty, in order to restrict press freedom.

"The current government has not changed the section of this law that concerns free expression, although it ought to undertake this for the sake of progress for human rights in Iraq," Jassam said. "Its aim is to reduce freedom of the press," he added.

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