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Human Rights

Iraqi authorities shut down internet, detain and assault journalists amid protests

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Between July 14 and September 6, 2018, at least seven Iraqi journalists were assaulted or detained while covering protests over government corruption and the lack of basic services in several cities across Iraq, and the offices of two local media outlets were set on fire, according to news reports, the journalists’ employers, the local press freedom group Iraqi Center for Supporting Freedom of Speech, and the journalists themselves.

Protests over unemployment, lack of basic services–including electricity and drinkable water–and government corruption broke out in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, 450 kilometers (280 miles) southwest of Baghdad, in mid-July and spread to other areas of Iraq, according to news reports. The protests in Basra are ongoing, news reports said.

In response to the protests, the Iraqi government on July 14, 2018, implemented partial and full internet shutdowns in several regions, including Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk, lasting at least two days, according to the independent digital rights and internet governance group Netblocks and the Iraqi press freedom group Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO).

JFO and Amnesty International released statements in July 2018 condemning the Iraqi government’s decision to shut down the internet as a deliberate attempt to prevent journalists and media outlets from covering the protests and to give carte blanche to the security forces to repress the protesters without being recorded and held accountable.

The violations that took place between July 14 and September 6 were:

  • Protesters set fire to the headquarters of the state-owned broadcaster Al-Iraqiya TV and Al-Forat TV, which is affiliated with the Hikma Movement of the Iraqi Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim, in Basra on September 6, 2018, according to news reports and the state-run Iraqi Media Network.

News reports noted that protesters also set fire to the Basra headquarters of the ruling Dawa Party, the Supreme Islamic Council, and the Badr Organization, whose leaders are negotiating a coalition government, as well as the offices of the Iran-backed Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Hikma Movement, and the Iranian consulate.

Neither Al-Iraqiya TV nor Al-Forat TV replied to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment.

  • Iraqi riot police officers detained Reuters photographer Essam al-Sudani while he was covering a sit-in on Abdel Karim Qassem Square in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on September 1, 2018, on the grounds that he had documented the security measures around the square, according to news reports and the Iraqi press freedom group Iraqi Center for Supporting Freedom of Speech. Al-Sudani was cited by the Iraqi Center for Supporting Freedom of Speech as saying that he was taken to a police station behind the Basra governor’s office. He was released without charge a few hours later, news reports said.

The Basra police directorate did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

  • Iraqi security forces assaulted Issa al-Atwany, a correspondent for Al-Nujaba TV (a TV station affiliated with the Iran-backed Shia militia Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba), in the central Iraqi province of Babil, while he was covering protests in Hillah on July 14, 2018, according to his employer and the journalist himself. Al-Atwany told CPJ that he was covering protests against unemployment, corruption, and power and water shortages when security forces began to crush the protest.

“When the police officers were near me I identified myself as a journalist, but they began to insult me and other journalists and beat me with sticks. As a result of that they broke my right hand and sustained bruises all over my body. I managed to flee. The local police’s head of public relations came to my house a few days later to apologize for the assault,” Al-Atwany added.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

  • Iraqi swat police assaulted and detained for up to three hours reporter Ahmed al-Abdi and cameramen Ali al-Aridhy and Aqeel al-Simery of Dijlah TV, an Amman, Jordan-based satellite TV channel sponsored by Iraqi MP Mohammed Karbouli, while they were covering protests at the airport of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, on July 13, 2018, according to Al-Abdi and a post by their employer on social media.

Al-Abdi told CPJ that they were covering a large gathering of people at the 1920 Revolution roundabout, near Najaf’s old city, filming the crowd, which was marching toward the Najaf governor’s office.

Al-Abdi added, “When some of the protesters tried to storm into the building, the riot police began to beat protesters with truncheons and stun sticks. Even though we had permission from the local authorities and the police to shoot video, they prevented us from filming the protests.” He told CPJ that the TV crew followed the protesters to the airport, and, “We were getting footage for the news bulletin when the swat police began to beat the protesters. We identified ourselves as journalists and showed them our permits and the logo of the channel, but they didn’t listen and beat us. They tore the T-shirt of one of our cameramen and seized our cameras and cell phones. They held us for three hours and deleted the camera’s Ram memory. I was let go an hour later, but they held the cameramen for a few hours longer.”

  • Reporter Haydar Saleh and cameraman Zaid Abbas Jaber al-Salami of the independent broadcaster Asia TV were assaulted and detained by the swat police and unidentified militiamen while they were covering protests in front of the governor’s office in Najaf on July 13, 2018, according to the Iraqi Center for Supporting Freedom of Speech, footage by the journalists, and Al-Salami.

Al-Salami told CPJ that he and Saleh were covering the protests in Najaf when they were attacked by Swat police officers and militiamen, who beat them with their rifle butts and threw stun grenades near them, causing him severe bruises in his back and damage to the left ear of Saleh.

“They took us to an unknown destination. Under the pressure of the beatings and threats, they forced us to sign a document promising not to cover the demonstrations, because the security forces consider the presence of journalists on the ground as incitement to demonstrate against the government. However, we returned to cover the protests because a lawyer told us that the document wasn’t legally binding. We found out that an arrest warrant against us had been issued on August 25 and our homes were raided on August 26. We will be tried in absentia on charges of incitement against the government,” Al-Salami added.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Iranians Global Network.

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