A spree of attacks and threats against media outlets in Iraq has alarmed the UN, journalists and monitors, who demand the government prevent the “silencing” of journalists covering mass protests.
Raids over the weekend carried out by unidentified gunmen have added to concerns for freedom of expression that were first flagged when authorities implemented a near-total Internet blackout after anti-government protests erupted last week in the capital and the country’s south.
On Saturday evening, the Baghdad bureaus of Kurdistan-based NRT TV, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya and local Al-Dijla news channels were raided by masked men, the stations said.
NRT TV said the gunmen damaged equipment, which temporarily put the channel off the air, seized employees’ phones and attacked local police.
Security camera footage aired by Al-Arabiya showed about a dozen men in tactical gear and helmets entering the bureau, ripping screens off walls and rummaging through drawers.
Al-Arabiya said it had received “assurances” from Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s office that the incident would be investigated.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh condemned the attacks as “unacceptable.”
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, said she was “shocked at the vandalism [and] intimidation.”
“Government efforts [are] required to protect journalists. Free media is the best safeguard of a strong democracy,” she said.
A security source told reporters that another local channel, Al-Nahrein, had also been raided and its equipment damaged, and that Hona Baghdad and Al-Rasheed had received threats.
“We received direct threats over our coverage of the protests,” said a journalist at Al-Rasheed, which has closely covered protests and accused security forces of indiscriminate violence.
“They told us: ‘Either you change your editorial line or you’ll have the same fate as NRT and the rest.’ So we preferred to cut our distribution,” the reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Throughout the week, bloggers and activists across the south also reported receiving text messages and phone calls threatening them and their families over their coverage.
“Coverage of demonstrations is very difficult and different from the usual coverage of events, because the crackdown on protesters automatically affects the journalists,” Dijlah TV’s Mazen Alwan told Iraq’s National Union of Journalists.
Various media outlets also took confidential measures to ensure the safety of their teams.
Iraq is ranked 156th out of 180 countries on this year’s World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The media watchdog accused security forces of “disproportionate and unwarranted restriction of the right to inform.”
“Instead of banning all journalistic activities, the security forces and local authorities have a duty to guarantee the safety of journalists so that they can do their reporting,” said Sabrina Bennoui, RSF’s Middle East desk head.
Iraq’s judiciary on Monday discussed legal action against those who attacked media stations, as well as protesters.
Journalistic Freedoms Observatory head Ziad al-Ajili said it was the first time he had witnessed such an attempt to “terrorise” media outlets.
“This is an organised, pre-planned operation to silence media. This is the fundamental way to oppress protesters,” he said. “We expect more attacks.”
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