New York, February 4, 2010—An Iraqi government plan to impose restrictive rules on broadcast news media represents an alarming return to authoritarianism, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ denounced the rules and called on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government to abandon their repressive plan.
CPJ’s review of the plan found rules that fall well short of international standards for freedom of expression and that appear to contravene the Iraqi constitution, which provides for a free press. The new rules would effectively impose government licensing of journalists and media outlets, a tool that authoritarian governments worldwide have long used to censor the news.
The rules would also bar coverage that the government vaguely describes as incitement to violence. CPJ research shows that such broad and unspecified standards are often used by repressive governments to silence critical coverage.
A copy of the plan, obtained by CPJ, can be downloaded here as a PDF (9 MB, Arabic).
“The regulations suggest either a lack of understanding of the news media’s role in a democratic society, or a deliberate attempt to suppress information and stifle opposing views,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Either way, the rules should be rescinded immediately so that the media can do its job free of government intimidation.”
The new regulations were drafted by the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (CMC), a government body that does not appear to have legal authority to draft such rules, CPJ research shows. The CMC was created with a narrow mandate to administer broadcast frequencies and other technical issues.
CPJ’s review found that the rules are replete with broad and vaguely expressed restrictions. While demanding that all local and international broadcast media be licensed and that all individual journalists be accredited by the CMC, the rules provide little information on the criteria the government would use in issuing such licenses. (All equipment must also be registered with the government.) The plan also states that news media must abstain from “incitement to violence,” but it does not define what would constitute a violation.
Media deemed to violate the rules could face closure, suspensions, fines, and confiscation of equipment.
CPJ found other alarming aspects to the rules. They stipulate, for example, that media organizations submit lists of their employees to the government. While the clause raises privacy concerns, it is particularly ominous in light of the recent history of journalist murders in Iraq. Of the 140 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003, at least 89 were targeted for murder, CPJ research shows. Another 43 media support workers, such as drivers and interpreters, were also murdered. In case after case, CPJ research shows, these journalists were targeted because of sectarian or work affiliations; many have gone to great lengths to conceal their profession for fear of reprisal.
In discussions with foreign reporters in Iraq, CMC representatives made it clear that media organizations would have to reveal confidential sources if they sought to challenge a determination made by the agency. If the CMC finds that a media organization has published information it deems inaccurate or inflammatory, the identification of sources would be central to any challenge to CMC findings, journalists who attended the meetings told CPJ.
“The regulations themselves, and the explanations provided by CMC officials, suggest that sources could be compromised, reporting could be censored, and Iraqi staff could be intimidated,” Simon added.