Iraqi journalists to have hotline following Ramadan killings

Iraq's Journalistic Freedom Observatory (JFO) has agreed with the Interior Ministry to start a hotline for journalists and to provide them with army protection if needed. The move follows the news that a four-member team working for Al-Sharqiya TV was brutally murdered in Mosul on September 13.
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The Al-Sharqiya crew was killed while filming an episode of the Ramadan program, Dinner Is On Us. © AFP

BEIRUT, September 16, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The arrests of the five people suspected of murdering the four Al-Sharqiya television reporters occurred just hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an inquiry into the incident.

Iraqi police arrested the men in the Al-Thawra neighborhood of Mosul, not far from where the murders took place.

Al-Sharqiya management welcomed the news, as did the victims' families. According to numerous press freedoms organizations, arrests in such cases are very rare.

"Iraq is not only the most deadly country in the world for the press, it also has an unblemished record of impunity for the killer of journalists," Executive Director Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said. "These two facts are not unrelated."

State TV 'morally responsible'

Last Saturday, gunmen kidnapped and killed the Al-Sharqiya crew consisting of Mosul bureau chief Musab al-Azzawi (the son of Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Azzawi), cameramen Ahmed Salim and Ihab Ma'ad and driver Kidar Suleman.

They were snatched in the Al-Zangili area of the city while on assignment for the popular Ramadan program Futurqum Alena (Dinner Is On Us), in which the station offers a free iftar (the traditional Ramadan evening meal) to people who can ill afford it.

To complicate things, Al-Sharqiya's management has accused a rival TV channel, the state-funded Al-Iraqiya, of complicity in the murders.

"The government's channel and those who stand behind it bear ethical and moral responsibility for the crime," Al-Sharqiya news director, Ali Wajih, was quoted as saying from Dubai.

Wajih accussed Al-Iraqiya of waging "a campaign of slander against the journalists working at Al-Sharqiya."

The feud between Al-Iraqiya and Al-Sharqiya began after Al-Sharqiya recently aired a report about torture in Iraqi prisons.

Al-Iraqiya responded by accusing Al-Sharqiya of "harming Iraqis."

"It is regrettable that public channels are being used to attack independent channels," Wajih said.

The TV crew's abduction and murder came amid a wave of violence in northern Iraq, with around twenty people being killed in bombings yesterday alone.

Their deaths brought the number of Iraqi journalists killed since the US-led invasion of March 2003 to more than 240.


MENASSAT's Rita Barotta spoke with Ziad Ojaily of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) in Baghdad about these latest developments.

MENASSAT: What is your reaction to the killing of the Al-Sharqiya crew?

"This is not the first time we have the killing of journalists. In 2006, 11 members of Al-Sharqiya were killed. These murders are part of organized killing operations. The criminals are professionals and commit the perfect crimes as if they were trained to do so. This is not new to us."

MENASSAT: Has there been any change in the way the government deals with these killings?

ZIAD OJAILY: "The situation is currently different in Iraq. We received information today that suspects are currently in custody of the Interior Ministry. The Iraqi authorities today are starting to feel the need to interfere and stop these crimes. They are following up on the cases, and I think this is the first step to limit the daily suffering of the journalists in Iraq."

MENASSAT: Who do you think is behind these crimes?

ZIAD OJAILY: "Everyone knows that there are foreign intelligence agencies are operating in Iraq. Some neighboring countries don't want to see stability in Iraq. It is obvious that the groups responsible for these killings are well-trained, and are probably being trained outside Iraq. They are sent here to spread chaos and sedition, destroy democracy and control the civil society institutions.

"I won't defend the American presence in Iraq, but we have to admit that it is currently facing what we call a cultural battle in the ethnic community, and the U.S. have no gains in sabotaging its own plan. It is spending billions of dollars to create "a new Middle East" so I doubt the Americans are behind these assassinations.

"But there are many intelligence agencies against the American plans, and they are behind the rumors that the U.S. is responsible for these crimes. I base my point of view on actual facts: the U.S. is currently a main partner of the ruling system. It is improbable that it would use terrorists."

MENASSAT: Al-Sharqiya’s editor-in-chief, Ali Wajih, has accused Iraqi state TV of being morally responsible for the killings.

ZIAD OJAILY: "I ask all the colleagues not to throw out random accusations. I don't think any station is inciting to killing. We should go to court and not accuse others.

"Every channel has the right to criticize others, especially concerning the prisons which are related to the government. Every government has prisons. Every government can arrest whoever it pleases, so no need to kill anyone.

"This is definitely not a reaction from another channel. In the past, it was possible to accuse the government, but the situation is different now."

MENASSAT: What did JFOIRAQ do concerning the crime?

ZIAD OJAILY: "I will tell you something we haven't disclosed yet. We spoke with the Interior Minister about the possibility to provide us with a hotline directly with the Ministry in case any journalist needs information. Through this hotline, we will be able to guide journalists in the field, especially in danger zones, so they won't be in danger.

"We also asked the Ministry and its security apparatus to provide us with special units to escort the journalists when required. The Minister, Jawad Boulani was very understanding and expressed his willingness to help.

"If we can apply this plan, we can say that we did a huge favor and provided some kind of protection to the journalists."