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Journalists stage unprecedented protest against free expression restrictions

Iraqis united on Baghdad's streets on 14 August to protest government restrictions on free expression
Iraqis united on Baghdad's streets on 14 August to protest government restrictions on free expression

Journalistic Freedoms Observatory

In an unprecedented action, hundreds of Iraqi journalists, academics, rights activists and parliamentarians took to Baghdad's streets last week to protest moves by the government to stifle free expression, say Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and the Journalistic Freedom Observatory (JFO), which organised the demonstration.

They gathered in old Baghdad's Mutanabi Street in opposition to draft legislation that tightens restrictions on print and online journalism. According to news reports, protesters carried signs that read, "Do not kill the truth," and chanted, "Yes, yes to freedom. No, no to silencing journalists."

The government has sought to censor books and publications, block websites it considers offensive and pass a new media law that would clamp down on journalists in the name of protecting them. The measures have raised fears of a crackdown on free speech reminiscent of the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein, reports the news website Al-Arabiya.

"Blocking internet websites and censoring books is a new dictatorship," Muhammad al-Rubaie, a human rights activist, told Al-Arabiya.

The proposed law, which was sent to parliament last month, defines what the government considers "moral" and sound journalistic practices, says the International Press Institute (IPI).

For instance, vague wording prohibits journalists from "compromising the security and stability of the country" - which IPI says may be used to stifle criticism. Protection of sources would be guaranteed unless "the law requires the source to be revealed."

"In other words there is no guaranteed protection for sources," said IPI.

The bill also stipulates that freedom of the press can be suspended if a publication threatens citizens or makes "provocative or aggressive statements."

"While we welcome the positive aspects of this draft law, we call on the Iraqi parliament to remove those sections that could hinder media freedom in the country," said IPI.

Protesters said they worried the law will leave them exposed to government interference in their profession and are a sign that the years of free expression could be coming to an end.

The protesters also marched in solidarity with Ahmed Abd al-Hussein, a journalist for the state-owned newspaper "Al-Sabah", who has recently been the target of death threats from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political party.

Al-Hussein had written an article blaming the party for a major bank holdup in July, in which US$7 million was stolen and eight people were killed. It turns out that some of the protest's leaders were political rivals of the Shiite group.

According to sources for "The New York Times", many Iraqi journalists have been turned into tools in the political struggle. "There were abundant signs of this at the demonstration itself, which seemed to have as much to do with a recent spat over a bank robbery as with press freedom," the paper said.

Al-Arabiya says that since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Iraqis have seen the media proliferate - they now have a choice between 200 print outlets, 60 radio stations and 30 TV channels. Yet most media outlets remain dominated by sectarian and party patrons who use them for their own ends.

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