Iraqi journalist sees threats to press freedom

"We are now waiting and watching to see who is going to become the first prey," says Nadjha Khadum, 52, founder of the Ur News agency.
"We are now waiting and watching to see who is going to become the first prey," says Nadjha Khadum, 52, founder of the Ur News agency. (Ernesto Londono - The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 26, 2010

Before the U.S.-led invasion, billed as the liberation of Iraqis, newspaper journalist Nadjha Khadum was as close to a trailblazer in her field as the era permitted.

During the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran, she was embedded with the Iraqi army and filed dispatches from the front lines. Her 1991 exposé of corruption at the Iraqi tax agency led to a minister's dismissal.

Her latest venture -- launching an independent online news site -- offers a snapshot of the present travails of Iraqis who yearned for basic freedoms during years of dictatorship. As Operation Iraqi Freedom draws to a close, Khadum is finding that the brand of freedom the United States ushered in is at best tenuous, at worst a temporary illusion.

Iraq has been the world's deadliest country for journalists since the war began in 2003. At least 140 have been killed, many of them targeted by militia and insurgent groups, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Although freedom of the press is guaranteed in Iraq's 2005 constitution, lawmakers have not passed legislation to enforce it. Government officials and private citizens have increasingly resorted to litigation to muffle critical reporting. And a commission that reports to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently unveiled guidelines that Iraqi journalists and press freedom advocates call authoritarian.

"This can be described as disastrous," Khadum said, referring to the new rules. "We are now waiting and watching to see who is going to become the first prey."

New guidelines

Before the war, Khadum said, journalists could publish some tough stories if they had evidence. "At that time, nobody would kill someone else over a story without getting caught by the government," she said.

Last fall, one of Khadum's best friends, journalist Imad Abadi, barely survived an assassination attempt.

"This was an attempt to keep our mouths shut and to derail journalists from their real task," said Abadi, who was shot in the head after publishing stories about government corruption.

In recent years, as political competition intensified, litigation against journalists has also increased, according to Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory. At least 200 such lawsuits have been filed over the past two years, Ajili said, adding, "There is no freedom."

The guidelines that Iraq's Communications and Media Commission issued last month bar journalists from withholding the names of sources and threaten action against those who publish information that incites violence -- a criterion that is ill-defined. The rules also say news organizations must apply for licenses, register equipment with the commission and provide a list of employees.

The Committee to Protect Journalists called the guidelines "an alarming return to authoritarianism."

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