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The War on Free Press: The Troubling Times for Journalists in Post-Invasion Iraq

On the morning of March 9th, 2020, Tawfiq Al-Tamimi, an editor and journalist for the Turkish-owned news station Al-Sabah, was on his way to work in a neighborhood in Eastern-Baghdad when he and fellow journalist Ali Hamoud al-Hassan were held at gunpoint by a group of unknown assailants. The assailants intercepted the two men in a car they took and would not only take both of their cellphones but would force Al-Tamimi into their vehicle while al-Hassan was set free. With this, the armed men would drive off with Al-Tamimi into an unknown location and to this day his whereabouts are unknown. 

Al-Tamimi’s family has since attempted to find out what exactly happened to him by contacting the government of Iraq through its Directorate of Crime Prevention board and even the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi but to no avail. Since then, speculation has abounded internationally as to Al-Tamimi’s fate and reasoning of his abduction. With many claiming that his abduction was due in part to his criticisms of the Iraqi government and how just two days before his abduction, he made a post to his Facebook page where he demanded the release of Mazen Latif, a writer and owner of a publishing house, who was detained that February. There was also speculation that his abduction was done by the militia forces in order to silence any dissent that may have arrived at such a divisive time in the state of Iraq; a sentiment even his family believes. With this, the story of Al-Tamimi is a haunting reminder as to the fate and daily struggles many journalists in Iraq face.

Facebook post that Tawfiq Al-Tamimi sent on March 7th that shows him (left) posing next to author Mazen Latif (Right). This picture was taken month before both were abducted.

2019 Protests

The post-invasion era of Iraq has seen its fair share of protests and conflict; in recent years, the situation has only grown worse. In 2019, the situation in Iraq boiled over to mass protest efforts and retaliation from the state militia from many factors that many saw as supplanting those in Iraq. Specifically, the ongoing allegation of corruption from state officials, lack of improvements in the public sector, high levels of unemployment, killing of protesters from the state militia, and even the supposed interference of countries such as Iran in the affairs of Iraq to undermine the state. However, the event that truly set many to begin in their mobilization efforts was the announcement by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi that he will be resigning in late 2019. His announcement resulted in many gatherings at Tahrir Square, a center that is seen as a symbol of mobilization and democratic movements, but with the increase in protests and calls for the government to step down so that a democratic election be held, it created a rift between the government and the people.

Crowds of people protesting at Tahir Square on November 1st, 2019

Reports indicated that around 432 were killed since the protests were underway in the beginning of October with another 19 thousand being subsequently injured according to the Independent High Commission for Human Rights of Iraq. With this, the movements and protesting efforts by many civilians is seen to be unending, with governmental retaliation not far behind, and as a result has prolonged tension to an already costly conflict. Still, there have been fears that the militia has renewed efforts to suppress any form of dissent for the preservation of the state with many groups being subsequently impacted. When announcing his resignation, Adil Abdul Mahdi made a chilling remark to the Iraqi government as to the future with him stepping down when he stated for them to; “…act in the interests of Iraq; to preserve the blood of its people; and to avoid slipping into a cycle of violence, chaos and devastation.”

With this, there have been concerns that virtually all sectors of Iraqi society are now under the watchful eye of the government, even the press.

Journalism in Modern-Day Iraq

In recent years, the landscape of the press has turned partisan and has resulted in more action against journalists and on what they can report on. In 2005, the government of Iraq established in its constitution both Freedom of Expression and Press; with subsequent protections even being extended to journalists. However since 2003, around 280 journalists have been killed with another 74 being abducted and also later killed. The perpetrators responsible, like in the case of Al-Tamimi, are relatively unknown; however, what is somewhat known is that the gunmen responsible belonged to either an armed faction (separate armed or terrorist group) or from militia forces. However, even with this growing action against journalists, some have still tried their hands at reporting; with a wide variety of consequences for doing so.

Including Afrah Shawqi, a journalist and correspondent for the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, who would, in late 2016, be kidnapped from her home by 20 armed men and tied up for about a month. While being held, she reports how she was repeatedly interrogated by the armed men on her integrity in being a reporter and how she was accused of colluding with foreign governments as a journalist; a subtle nod to her possibly undermining the Iraqi government with her work as a journalist. 

Other journalists would often be harassed online, with what are called “electronic armies,” in an effort to threaten or possibly even scare many in a coordinated cyber attack. Often as well, security forces would summon or go to the homes of journalists to threaten or interrogate as to the purpose of their article; which would cause many to either be detained or go to exile for their personal safety. 

Global Response

As a result of the actions done against journalists, the international community has been keenly aware of how the press and the dissemination of information has been impacted and ways to circumvent information from being supplanted. One of the most useful, especially to Journalists who are going through exile, include the Iraqi National Journalist Union which helps provide shelter to Journalists; especially to those after the 2019 protest as security began ramping. 

Another important way that the international community has responded to these disappearances is through the clear awareness and dissemination of the cases and personal stories of independent journalists who were abducted or killed in their efforts to promote journalistic integrity; including Al-Tamimi. Much of this has resulted in the international community to observe the actions of the Iraqi government much closer to observe any purposeful ways they may undermine the Freedoms of the Press.

However even with responses such as these, the actions by the militia forces does not seem to be slowing down and is impacting the integrity many uphold in Iraq to promote Journalism. Something that may worsen over time.


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