Journalists protest Iraqi government pressure

BAGHDAD — Journalists took to the streets today in the Iraqi capital to protest what they say is political pressure to silence the media.

The rally, staged by scores of reporters and political figures, comes as journalist Ahmed Abdul-Hussein has been threatened with a lawsuit over editorials related to a bloody Baghdad bank robbery that left eight security guards dead.

Iraqi journalists have never enjoyed press freedoms and protections that most of their Western colleagues receive. In recent years, journalists have been beaten and arrested by Iraqi security forces for attempting to document insurgent attacks or mass protests.

The situation has become more tense as the political campaign gears up ahead of national elections, which are scheduled for January.

“We are here to reject government censorship or intervention in our work,” said protesters Ziyad al-Khafaji of the Baghdad-based independent Journalistic Freedom Observatory, a media rights group. “Democratic countries should not fear a free media.”

The protesters carried signs that read “do not kill the truth” and chanted “Yes, yes to freedom. No, no to silencing journalists.” There were no reports of violence during the demonstration, held in front of the famed Mutanabi Street book market.

“It is the very duty of journalists to reveal the truth, and we are against any kind of censorship of the media,” said Fawzi al-Atroushi, the deputy culture minister, who also attended the rally. “We are against any threats made against journalists.”

Anger has risen after Abdul-Hussein has been threatened with a lawsuit by a Shiite lawmaker for an editorial that alluded to a political party supporting the heist, and claimed the nearly $7 million stolen was meant to finance political campaigns.

Abdul-Hussein offered no proof in the editorial and did not name the party.

Presidential guards have been accused of participating in a July 28 robbery of the state-run Rafidain Bank in Baghdad in which about 8 billion Iraqi dinars ($6.9 million) was stolen.

Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a senior member of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, has denied any involvement but said one of the guards charged in the robbery worked as part of his detail.

Abdul-Mahdi has been under fire from political opponents over the case, especially after authorities discovered the stolen money in the office of a newspaper he owns. The vice president has called the allegations politically motivated.

Hard-line Shiite lawmaker and cleric, Jalaluddin al-Saghir, has threatened Abdul-Hussein with a lawsuit to stop the editorials.

Journalists came under fire today by at least one Shiite cleric, Mohammed Falak, who told worshippers in Basra during prayers that there should be rules for the media.

“There is something called freedom of expression for the media, and it is a good thing. But there should be some rules,” Falak said.

He said it was inappropriate for a newspaper to make accusations prior to an investigation being completed.

Journalists also have frequently been targeted or otherwise caught up in Iraq’s violence, with 139 killed since the March 2003 U.S. invasion, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

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