February 4, 2010 / 3:19 PM / 11 years ago

New Iraqi media rules raise spectre of muzzled past

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Battling what it says are broadcasts that incite sectarian violence, Iraq wants to impose new restrictions on the media that critics say could bring back draconian censorship last seen under Saddam Hussein.

The new rules from the Communications and Media Commission are being enforced ahead of a March 7 parliamentary election, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will be seeking re-election.

Among the elements in the regulations that concern critics are stipulations that all media and journalists seek permission to operate in Iraq from the CMC, submit lists of all staff and equipment, and pledge not to incite sectarianism or violence.

“CPJ’s conclusion is that the regulations represent a clear and transparent effort to control the media, undermine its independence, and allow the government to assert control over the information agenda,” Joel Simon of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in an email.

The Iraqi constitution guarantees free speech and a free press, and CMC officials say the new regulations are only intended to bring a measure of order to a chaotic industry.

But their implications worry free speech advocates and international media organisations.

It remains risky for Iraqis to be associated with foreign companies and Western media fear that handing over staff lists places them at risk from militia, insurgents like al Qaeda, or kidnap gangs. Many reporters working for foreign media do not tell their neighbours what they do.

The regulations provide no clear guidelines on what is meant by inciting sectarianism or violence. They could therefore be used to muzzle media that publish death tolls from bombings that the government wishes to downplay before the March vote.

Reuters and other media are already routinely threatened by officials with lawsuits or expulsion because of disparities between the number of bomb victims reported by their police and interior ministry sources, and official death tolls.

Nor do the new regulations spell out the conditions under which a media organisations might be refused permission to operate in Iraq. As such they provide no protection from arbitrary and politically motivated decisions, critics say.

STRICT CONTROL REPLACED BY FREE-FOR-ALL

Saddam Hussein imposed draconian controls through his Information Ministry on the media. Since his fall in 2003, Iraqi newspapers, TV and radio stations have flourished.

The degree of free speech in Iraq now is as unparalleled in most of the Middle East as is the country’s fragile democracy.

Many outlets are, however, funded by political factions with clear agendas and pay little regard to objectivity and truth.

Some Arab networks champion Iraq’s once dominant Sunnis over the Shi’ite majority now in charge, and a few broadcast insurgent propaganda, like video of bomb attacks on U.S. troops.

Those are the types of media the new regulations are aimed at suppressing, CMC officials say.

But it is not legally the CMC’s job to regulate journalists — it was set up to run public broadcast frequencies. Foreign media are already registered with the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, while the law says Iraqi print media should regulate themselves.

“They are unfortunately trying to set up a system to police the media, rather than a commission to organise broadcasts and transmissions,” said Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Iraqi free press lobby group The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory.

In meetings with foreign journalists, CMC officials said the CMC will establish a monitoring department that will watch not just for attempts to incite violence or sectarianism but also for perceived errors in news reports.

CMC officials indicated that reporters might not be able to keep their sources secret — a tenet of journalism worldwide — as they would have to reveal those sources in order to defend themselves against claims they published a mistake.

“These regulations ... are reminiscent of media regulations that predominate in authoritarian countries,” said Simon of CPJ.

Additional reporting by Aseel Kami; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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