Threats and harassment draw red lines for Karbala journalists

A few years back, journalist Ali Ibrahim, director of “Bayina” newspaper in Karbala, spent a few days in prison for “insulting” the former police chief in the city. He was only released after local officials intervened in his favor. But this incident still haunts Ali Ibrahim, which he describes as a “slap on the hand” meant to deter him and other journalists from criticizing the local officials.
iraq karbala journalists

KARBALA, Aug 21, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Ali adds that he was later “avoided by several official bodies because of his brave articles and reports and stopped being invited to activities or press conferences organized by Karbala city officials.”

More than two years ago, a female journalist was on her way back home when she was shot at by two unidentified men on a motorbike. Because she was not hit, she assumed they only wanted to scare her, since they were not far away from her, if they had really wanted to kill her. The journalist who went underground for weeks after the incident never knew why she was attacked. But “journalists in Karbala are aware that they would be dead if someone in the city wanted them killed,” journalist Anmar al-Basri says.

Ali Ibrahim still feels he’s “not entirely free when reporting,” and many others share this sentiment. Journalist Majid al-Khayyat, a reporter for Al-Iraqiya channel in Karbala, believes “journalism is in a way consensual in Karbala.” He tends to use this description for media work in Karbala because “it’s not free over here, and we take lots of pressure.” Khayyat said the pressure comes from “official, political, and social circles.” But he also does not exclude those who own the media from restricting freedom of expression. “All those owners, other than a few rare cases, direct their coverage according to their political, religious and social agendas, and do not allow the opposing opinion except when it serves them.”

The threats

Journalists in Karbala think freedom of expression isn’t only threatened by official parties, although those forces are the most obvious, since they are known in person, and because they have been involved in numerous incidents where journalists were attacked in Karbala and other Iraqi cities.

There are also groups described by the local Al-Hoda radio reporter Adel Kazar as “ghosts,” who threaten journalists and limit their coverage of certain subjects and events that take place in the city, as well as “try to obstruct journalists from carrying out investigative reporting on the darker sides of power structures in society––from religion to politics.”

Kazar says “no journalist can guarantee his or her safety after reporting on honor killings for example.” Despite the fact that Karbala occasionally witnesses these crimes where women are killed every day, reporting on these crimes by journalists working in the city will place them in danger from the victims’ families, or even from the perpetrators themselves.  

He added that reporting on other issues like “mutaa” marriage, or the performance of certain political or religious figures can be very difficult: “journalists will be targeted by unidentified people because of their coverage of these issues.”

The risks facing journalists are not limited to physical harm for reporting undesired stories by this or that party. A journalist can soon discover how an article or a report has angered an official, who in turn decides to black out the journalist, denying them any access to information. Adel remembers how the water and sewage authorities in Karbala sued Al-Hurra reporter Iman Bilal for reporting on water supplies filled with dirt. Although Iman Bilal won the case, “the incident exposes how authorities mistreat journalists, leading to restrictions on freedom of the press,” Adel explained.

Journalists explain that pressures and obstacles preventing them from doing their work freely “have to do with how conservative and religious the society is in Karbala,” as journalist Muhammad Issa explained. But he is quick to add that “long years of siege experienced by the Iraqi society in general, is another reason why Iraqis are not used to accepting the other side’s opinion.”

Issa says “targeting, and even killing journalists can be so easy for some people, amid unstable and insecure conditions, which prevents the media from contributing to building the country.”

The former local government had previously granted journalists the right to own and bare weapons, in a clear indication of the dangers facing them. But the decision did little to reassure journalists and provide them with a sense of safety. After all, a very limited number of them applied for a license to carry a weapon, perhaps because “journalists believe weapons are not fitting form them,” as Adnan al-Salihi from the Shirazi Research and Studies Centre notes. He added that, “only the journalists’ tools are fitting for them to carry,” in reference to the materials they need to perform their work.

Journalists lacking professionalism

Former Karbala council member Abdel Hasan al-Furaty agrees. “Media work is difficult in explosive conditions,” he says. There are also “attempts to indoctrinate media” carried out by both official and non-official parties. Speaking to MENASSAT, Al-Furaty said what journalists suffer all over Iraq today, from murder to pressures, is the result of “official and non-official parties trying to control the media for their advantage.” He also said that when press departments in state ministries are under the authority of these ministries’ officials, journalists will not be able to report what their superiors do not approve–– “a practice that stands at odds with freedom of press, and is an obstacle for free press.”

But al-Furaty explains how there’s been a slight improvement since 2003 and “journalists can benefit from this improvement if they were to work within the boundaries, professionally.”

Media professor at Karbala University Dr. Amran Al-Kabboushy said “neutralism, and balanced coverage” should be a rule for all journalists in Karbala “to avoid some parties’ abuse,” as he put it. But journalist Nizar al-Shummari said media workers “complain about officials not cooperating with them. Many of all ranks refuse to reveal information to the media on sensitive and important matters,” leaving journalists with nothing to include about the official side of the story, since they won’t talk to them.

Since 2003, there are dozens of Iraqi and international media representatives operating in Karbala, as well as a number of television and radio stations broadcasting from the city, some owned by political parties, some by local officials, and others by the religious authorities.