Hot-headed and buoyed by youthful defiance, Sardasht Osman ignored the death threat texts that flashed up on his phone and his brothers’ pleas to tone down his articles criticizing the Kurdish regional government. In a piece entitled “Farewell”, he said he was prepared to meet his killers. “I fear neither death nor torture,” he wrote. “Whatever happens I will not leave this city, and I will wait for my own death. I know this is the first bell ring for my death but at the end it will become a ring bell for the youth in my society.”
It was to be his last article. The 23-year-old was heading into the University of Salahaddin in Erbil when he was grabbed by two men in a crowded area full of armed guards and bundled into a car, his books left strewn in the street. Two days later his battered body was found 50 miles away in Mosul outside the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headquarters. He had two bullet wounds through the mouth, a symbolic punishment for someone who has spoken out.
Across Kurdistan tomorrow [tues] protests will be held to mark the fortieth day, a traditional mourning interval, since Osman’s body was found. The murder – the third in two years — has sent a shock wave through the local community of journalists, explained Kamal Rauf, editor in chief of the region’s largest independent paper, Hawlati. “People are very scared. Three of my reporters have resigned. They say they are not scared but their families are,” he said.
But it has also led to an unprecedented surge of protest, with journalists, students, academics and civil rights campaigners marching under the banner “We Will Not Be Silenced”. Ever since the US-led invasion of 2003 Iraq has been the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that 89 have been murdered and a further 50 have died in cross fire or other acts of war. The great majority, some 117 of the dead journalists, were Iraqi. The CPJ says that Iraq holds the world record for journalists murdered with impunity since nobody has ever been prosecuted for any of the killings.
But, some argue, the threat to freedom of expression in Iraq is changing. Fewer journalists are dying in Iraq today than a few years ago but journalism itself is beginning to expire under relentless government pressure. The government sees media outlets which criticize it as the propaganda organs for opposition parties or foreign countries. “The real danger to journalism is not killings and kidnappings but the clamp down by the government authorities. They would like to control the entire media,” explains Ziad al-Ajili, the head of the Baghdad-based media rights organisation Journalistic Freedom Observatory.
The JFO, whose office is protected by heavy metal doors, methodically records and protests against the systematic assaults, harassment and detention of reporters by the government security forces as well as raids on media outlets and their closure. The JFO annual report for the last year has a depressing list of 262 different types of attacks on the media over the last year, almost all of them by the state security forces. Mr Ajili says this escalating persecution is proving effective: “The Iraqi media no longer dares expose scandals. It was the foreign media which exposed the secret government prison at the old al-Muthanna airport in Baghdad where the prisoners were being tortured. Iraqi journalists would not have dared do that.”
Under Saddam Hussein the media was tightly controlled by the Ministry of Information though attacks on corruption were sometimes allowed. Terrified journalists would be summoned to meet Uday, Saddam’s elder son, for praise or imprisonment depending on his mood. Even so government officials paid attention to what appeared in the media. Mr Ajili says that today the government’s priority is eliminate all media coverage “relating to mismanagement and corruption.” It is not only television stations and newspapers that are targeted. For instance in February this year security and military forces raided three publishing houses in Baghdad and confiscated a 16-page booklet entitled “Where has Iraq’s money gone?” covering financial and administrative corruption over the last four years. They arrested six staff and reporters were prevented from entering the publishers for several days.
Restrictions on the media are constantly increasing. The media is meant to obtain a permit to cover any violent incident. Even when permission is granted local security forces often beat or arrest reporters or smash their equipment. The purpose of this is to downplay the level of violence which, while much lower than three years ago, is still higher than most of the rest of the world. Regulation and control of the media is in the hands of the National Communications and Media Commission. This has unlimited power to close down broadcasters and newspapers, confiscate equipment, withdraw licenses and impose fines.
Just before the March elections the commission declared that all journalists must have permits to work in Iraq and must pledge “not to incite sectarianism”. This might include something as simple as publishing the number of victims of a bombing, figures which the government tries to minimize. While new threats are weighing on journalists, the old dangers have not gone away. Yasin al-Fadhawi in Anbar province west of Baghdad discovered a bomb the size of a football outside the door of his home last summer, two days after his magazine published an article about allegedly corrupt dealings between the government and tribal chiefs. He fled his home and went into hiding. Along with 43 other journalists in Anbar who consider themselves under threat, al-Fadhawi wanted to a gun to protect himself but could nor get a permit.
And then there is the case of Imad al-Ebad. An investigative journalist at a television station in Baghdad, he had just got out of his car to meet a contact when he was shot four times in the head. Astonishingly, Mr Ebadi survived despite being seriously wounded. He had just enough strength to get back behind the wheel of his car before he passed out for ten minutes. His would-be murderers must have thought he was dead, but Emadi revived and drove, still bleeding profusely, across Baghdad towards his television station. He says: “As I passed through army and police checkpoints they saw I was hit but they did nothing to help me.”
His colleagues took him to hospital in Baghdad where he stayed for ten days and then spent two months recuperating in a hospital in Germany. He fingers the scars on his neck where one bullet hit him and bows his head to show where hair is beginning to cover his other wounds. To this day he does not know exactly why or by whom he was attacked but he assumes it was in retaliation for his investigation of government corruption. “As well as my television work I was writing articles on corruption and scandals in the prime minister’s office,” he says. “I had received threatening phone calls and text messages saying: ‘You are nothing. We will kill you.’”
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”