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Internal security threats suddenly off-limits for news media

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by the way the Iraqi authorities prevented the news media from covering bombings in Baghdad and the southern province of Babil on 19 and 20 August 2009 and an ensuing emergency parliamentary debate, in what appears to have been deliberate security policy.

"We wonder why the Iraqi authorities forbade journalists to approach the scenes of the bombings and interview victims," Reporters Without Borders said. "Was it to reduce the broadcasting of shocking images? Was it to conceal successful terrorist operations? Was it to cover up the ineffectiveness of those in charge of internal security? More transparency is needed from the Iraqi authorities, who should allow journalists to work freely."

Many journalists were obstructed and manhandled by security forces when they tried to cover the two truck bombs that exploded on 19 August in Baghdad, one outside the foreign ministry and the other outside the finance ministry, exposing the inadequacies of the new internal security plan drawn up by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is also head of the security forces, following the withdrawal of US forces from the cities.

The next day, three journalists were prevented from photographing and filming the funerals of victims near Baghdad's Al Tab Al 'Adli hospital. Although they showed a permit issued by the Baghdad operational command and the health ministry, they were physically attacked by an interior ministry official accompanied by plain-clothes police.

Reuters photographer Tha'ir Al Sudani, cameraman Haydar Kadhim Noor and Shehab Ahmed, a photographer with the European Pressphoto Agency, were also detained for several hours by hospital security guards.

In Al Hillah, 100 km south of Baghdad, print and broadcast media personnel, including the correspondents of the satellite TV stations Al Hurra, Al Sumariya and Al Rasheed and Radio Sawa, were denied entry to the main hospital after a series of bombings in the city and the surrounding province of Babil on 20 August that killed more than 65 people.

The security forces prevented them from talking to hospitalised survivors or other witnesses of the bombing on the orders of the hospital administration, which was acting on instructions received from the health ministry in Baghdad, one of the reporters said.

The same hostile policy towards the press was pursued the next day, 21 August, when only 60 of Iraq's 440 parliamentarians turned up for an emergency meeting of parliament to discuss the adoption of new security measures following the failure of the security forces to prevent the wave of bombings of the previous two days.

First deputy chairman of the parliament Khalid Al Attiyah demanded the expulsion of all the journalists present in the parliament building and issued a formal ban on any press coverage of the meeting and its content for security reasons. Al Ittijah TV reporter Mufid Hamid was manhandled by the first deputy chairman's bodyguards as the media were being expelled from parliament.

The expulsion and the accompanying use of violence against journalists were filmed and broadcast by local TV stations.

The Iraqi Union of Journalists and several parliamentarians, including Maha Al Dawri, Fawzi Akram and Hassan Al Rabi'I, have condemned the decision to exclude the media from the parliamentary debate and impede coverage of the wave of bombings, its consequences and, in general, the government's anti-terrorism policies.

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