Iraqi journalists worry about media crackdown

BAGHDAD Thu Nov 26, 2009 4:14am EST

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Lawsuits, rules that allow the government to shut TV stations that promote violence and other signs of creeping censorship are raising fears of a crackdown on Iraq's often partisan media ahead of an election next year.

Lawsuits have been filed or threatened against both foreign and local media outlets critical of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite Muslim-led government, which will seek re-election in national polls due in early 2010.

This month an Iraqi court ordered Britain's Guardian newspaper to pay 100 million Iraqi dinars ($86,000) in compensation for an article in which unnamed Iraqi intelligence officials accused Maliki of being increasingly authoritarian.

At the same time, the department for communications and media has issued rules under which it can close down any media company that encourages "terrorism, violence and tensions."

Broadcasters and their satellite trucks will have to be licensed, and the government has moved to censor books and to seek powers to block websites deemed to be pornographic or that incite conflict.

The measures evoke memories of the minders that shadowed journalists and laws used to muzzle them under Saddam Hussein. The lawsuits, in fact, are based on Saddam-era legislation that allows courts to impose the death penalty, if they so decide.

"It is clear that there are political and military groups in Iraq that want to tape shut the mouths of the media," said Ziad al-Ajili, the head of a Iraqi press freedom group the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory. "A free media in Iraq represents a real threat to all these parties."

BOISTEROUS MEDIA

Iraqi journalists have been frequently targeted in shootings and bombings since the 2003 invasion -- a well known television reporter was shot in the head and neck on Monday -- but the fall of Saddam's regime also allowed the media sector to flourish.

It is far more boisterous and diverse than it has ever been, and dozens of TV stations and newspapers compete for attention.

But most are funded by political factions with an axe to grind, rivals to flay and careers to promote. Few are impartial.

Many also seem intent at times on reigniting the bloodshed between once dominant Sunni Muslims and majority Shi'ites that almost tore Iraq apart. The government says its aim is to silence only those who provoke violence.

Nevertheless, defenders of press freedom feel threatened, and say efforts to shine a light on an epidemic of corruption afflicting Iraqi public life are suffering.

"I'll think twice before I write any story especially if it includes any accusations against any official," said Iraqi reporter Mahmood al-Mifriji. "It's become so easy for an official to sue a journalist and win the case."

Maliki's office denied that the case against the Guardian was brought by or on behalf of the prime minister.

The prime minister said in a statement after the verdict that his government was fully aware of the "importance of respecting freedom of speech in building democracy."

Yet it was not the first case against a publication seen as critical of Maliki or of officials around him.

In May, Maliki's office threatened to sue a Germany-based Iraqi website called Kitabat (www.kitabat.com) for 1 billion dinars. The suit was dropped. In August, a TV station was fined for a "personal attack" on Baghdad's military spokesman.

Meanwhile, new regulations being imposed on the media by the Iraqi commission for communication and media will force it to register and license all satellite transmission equipment.

The measures are common around the world and are meant to bring some order to the industry, said Burhan al-Shawi, the general director of the commission.

"How others (journalists) feel about these regulations is not a matter of concern to us. There are international standards that govern such regulations and we are going to impose them."

(Editing by Michael Christie and Myra MacDonald)

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