After 6 years of democracy, Iraqis learn limits of free press

BAGHDAD — Journalist Ali al Asasdi gets to report that corruption exists in Iraqi government — he just can't say who's corrupt.

"I'm afraid" of retaliation from the militias that are linked to Iraqi political parties, said Asasdi, a correspondent for the al Diyar satellite station.

The news media are still finding their way in this six-year-old democracy, flexing their muscles in ways they couldn't under dictator Saddam Hussein, but sensitive to signs that the government's current leaders would shut their presses and turn off their electronic signals.

Journalists' fears have been inflamed this summer by a decision from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Interior requiring publishers to get their permission before printing books and by an Aug. 7 speech at a prominent Shiite mosque where an imam and lawmaker denounced a journalist's work, triggering fears for the writer's safety.

Iraq's a deadly place for reporters. Since March 2003, 190 reporters and media workers have been killed in Iraq, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Posters hang in Baghdad urging people not to murder reporters.

About 200 reporters and free speech advocates rallied Friday in al Mutanabi street, the cultural heart of Baghdad, to put a spotlight on the government censorship that they see when they're turned away from checkpoints by police or intimidated by the gun-carrying guards who flank politicians.

"If this country wants to be a real democracy, they should not prevent us from reading what we want and expressing ourselves," said Emad Al Khafji, leader of an advocacy group called Tower of Babylon that organized the protest.

Baghdad's colorful press includes party-run papers and a few independent dailies. Journalists often turn a cynical eye on people in power, reflecting common views that political parties enrich themselves with money that would be better spent on power grids and roads.

Baghdad's al Mada newspaper offered last week to lead a donation drive to buy a helicopter for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and other officials after motorcades tied up traffic in Baghdad while politicians mingled at an anniversary celebration for his Dawa Party.

A similar tongue-in-cheek jab landed the al Sabah newspaper's Ahmed Abdul Hussein in the sites of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq when he connected the Shiite political party to a July 30 Baghdad bank robbery that left eight dead.

At least two of the four suspects in the 8 billion dinar (about $7 million) heist worked for a high-level security team that protects Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a member of the Supreme Council. It didn't take long for most Iraqis to hone in on that connection as a sign of political corruption.

Mahdi distanced himself from the robbery, saying it was conducted by independent criminals. The arrests, however, touched a nerve with Iraqis who suspect corruption lurks at every level of government.

Reporter Abdul Hussein published a story joking that the stolen money would be used to buy blankets for voters - a tactic the Supreme Council has used to drum up support in past elections.

Sheikh Jalal al Din al Sagheer responded by using part of a sermon to criticize the reporter and the paper's editors, saying that they recklessly maligned the Supreme Council. The prominence of that speech had a chilling effect on the Baghdad press, which saw it as a threat from a party that once controlled an armed wing.

The uproar over Abdul Hussein's pieces mostly has subsided, but journalists at Friday's rally stressed that the intimidation they feel is real. Asasdi, the Diyar correspondent, said he held back on the air when he discussed allegations that tied the bank robbery to the Supreme Council.

"We don't have a government of institutions. We have a government of pistols," he said.

Some at last week's rally said their showing was important for the government to see. Vice President Mahdi later told a press conference that he supports free speech and that public officials should expect to be criticized.

"I think the authorities will think 1,000 times before oppressing journalists again," said cartoonist Salman Abed, whose home in Karbala was ransacked in April by local security forces who didn't like the way he sketched Prime Minister al Maliki. He's not laying down his pen.

(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee.)


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