'It's not enough but it's all we can do'

It is undeniable that the fall of Saddam Hussein was a good thing for press freedom in Iraq. But it came at a high price: 210 journalists and media workers have been killed since March 2003. MENASSAT spoke with Hady Jelo Merhi, vice-president of the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, an Iraqi NGO that has taken on the huge task of monitoring attacks on Iraqi journalists.
Handala: I liked your article today about democracy. What are you writing for tomorrow's paper? Man: My will. © Naji El Ali

MENASSAT: Is there anything good to report on the situation of Iraqi journalists, five years after the start of the war?

HADY JELO MERHI: "Well, the media situation in Iraq is completely different from five years ago. It is very diverse now, and there is a lot of stress on professionalism. Iraqi journalists are now among the most professional in the Arab world. And, of course, we are much richer now in terms of freedom of speech. The problem is that journalism does not have much impact on the political scene or on the daily struggle of the Iraqis."

MENASSAT: Iraq obviously has more press freedom now than it did under Saddam Hussein, when it was non-existent. But at the same time sectarianism seems to have taken over most of the Iraqi media. Is it even possible to report objectively and independently under these circumstances?

H.J.M.: "I admit that some Iraqi media are playing a negative role in fueling sectarianism. However, most Iraqi journalists agree on not letting sectarianism rule Iraq. There is no doubt that the great majority of journalists are influenced by who they work for. But at the same time, in their independent writing or during our meetings, most journalists refuse any kind of sectarianism. They unanimously agree that sectarianism is something we need to fight against.

"Also, sectarianism is not the only danger. We have noticed recently that sectarianism is starting to whither away and it is being replaced by another problem: the corruption and the authoritarianism that is being imposed by the organized gangs who defy the community."

MENASSAT: On March 4, both AFP and JPO reported that several journalists and a cameraman were assaulted by Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad. According to eyewitness reports, an Iraqi general ordered his troops to attack the journalists. Besides armed militias, are the Iraqi security forces also targeting journalists now?

H.J.M.: "This happened, unfortunately, but it was a personal conflict between the general and one of the journalist. We can't generalize from this to say that the government is targeting journalists. No orders have been given from the higher authorities to target journalists. In fact, you could say that the current government considers attacks on journalists as a challenge to its authority over the country. Unfortunately, when some "teenage" journalists deal with the military without showing respect, incidents occure. As I said recently on al-Hurra TV, 'Journalists also have to help us help them.'"

MENASSAT: Recently, the head of the Iraqi Press Syndicate, Shibab al-Tamimi, was shot and fatally wounded in a Baghdad street. Has anyone claimed responsibility for his murder? And how does your organization deal with the fact that no serious investigation goes into the murders of journalists?

H.J.M.: "As a matter of fact, al-Tamimi was never an active participant in the JFO.  Quite on the contrary: he always took a negative stand towards us. Regardless, no party has claimed responsibility for his murder. What we usually do in such cases is to conduct our own investigation in the field because the government doesn't share information about their investigation. We try to put pressure on them by making public statements about this. We know it is not enough but it is all we can do under the circumstances."

MENASSAT: What about the U.S. presence in Iraq? How does it affect Iraqi journalists? Does it make it less or more dangerous for them?

H.J.M.: "We are all convinced that the U.S. presence in Iraq is only negative. The current bloody struggle for power is a result of the U.S. presence, and this confrontation creates additional dangers for Iraqi journalists."
MENASSAT: Iraqi journalists have also been arrested by U.S. troops without formal charges being brought against them.

"Yes, there is the case of Bilal Hussein from the Associated Press, who was arrested for no apparent reason. But what worries us more is the kidnapping of journalists. There are currently 14 journalists kidnapped in Iraq, and the kidnappers are still unknown."

MENASSAT: What, if anything, can Iraqi journalists hope for in the future? Is the picture all negative?

"Hope doesn't come into it. Whether the situation changes or remains the same, it doesn't affect our attitude. We believe in our mission which is to tell the truth and continue with our careers. But let me tell you, if you had called me in 2004 to do this interview, the situation was entirely different. Back then, we couldn't even leave our houses in the evening. Today, I'm talking to you on my mobile phone from my car. I'm just saying: the security situation is really much better than before."

MENASSAT: And yet, just the other day, the governor of Najaf offered to reserve a plot for the 'martyrs off the press' at the Dar as-Salam cemetery.

H.J.M.: "Yes, I wrote an article about that myself actually. What actually happened was that the governor donated a 25 sq.m. plot at the cemetery for the burial of al-Tamimi. The media overreacted, and there were even street protest over the matter with journalists calling for 'protection, not graves.' The poor governor created a big mess for himself; there is a widespread campaign against him in the media. In Iraq today, if you announce something to a journalist you better think twice."

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