Iraq’s Long Road to Freedom of Expression

More vigorous support for pro-democracy activists from the international community is key to the success of the growing movement that rejects post-invasion sectarian cronyism and corruption.

Hadani Ditmars
Hadani Ditmars
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A portrait of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein lies behind a bullet hole in the window of a Baghdad watch repair shop, June 30, 2004.
A portrait of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein lies behind a bullet hole in the window of a Baghdad watch repair shop, June 30, 2004. Credit: Reuters
Hadani Ditmars
Hadani Ditmars

Following the killings of nine activists in Iraq late last month, and continuing harassment of journalists covering the ongoing nationwide anticorruption demonstrations, it’s comforting to know that the United Nations has expressed concern.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq recently released a statement that appealed for “the safety of journalists and demonstrators” and mentioned “reports about ‘unknown entities’ intimidating, harassing, assaulting or threatening with death demonstrators as well as journalists.”

Jan Kubis, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq and head of UNAMI, was quoted as saying, “The authorities must prosecute all persons who try to derail the peaceful demonstrations and prevent journalists from doing their work.”

But considering that in long-suffering Iraq the line between “authorities” and “unknown entities” is an increasingly thin one, the well-meaning statement seems almost nave in its appeal.

“Journalists in Iraq face a double threat, from armed gangs gunning them down and prosecutors charging them, all because of what they write,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a report released at the end of 2013. “The recent spate of assassinations of journalists has had a chilling effect on journalists, who risk being prosecuted by the very authorities that are supposed to protect them.”

Rule of law in a country that has weathered brutal dictatorships, disastrous invasions and post-occupation nightmares like ISIS is a distant dream. And yet the ongoing demonstrations against government ineptitude and cronyism that cross class, gender and sectarian lines offer a glimmer of real hope in an otherwise bleak post-invasion landscape.

For decades now Iraqis have been fighting for basic freedoms and human rights, with varying degrees of success and Western media coverage. While there has been very limited coverage of post-invasion protest movements, including the one that emerged out of the nine-month hiatus of 2010 when politicians abdicated responsibility for actually running the country in favor of drawn-out horse-trading after disputed election results, this pales in comparison with the orgy of “Saddam is evil” press in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

But the fact is that freedom of speech and safety for journalists, rightly criticized as sorely lacking during the Baathist years, were hardly hallmarks of post-invasion society.

In the bad old Baathist days, official statements were opportunities to read between the lines, and police statism could be sidestepped via vehicles like the thriving theater scene, where criticism of sanctions related to government corruption was tolerated up to a certain point. I neatly transcended the Baathist platitudes voiced by my official “minders” by visiting war widows at male-, and thus minder-free, beauty parlors who offered more naked truths about the situation under the dual terrors of Saddam and sanctions.

When I visited Baghdad after the invasion, the promised liberation had become a bad joke. Playwrights at the national theater told me they felt even more constrained than before, when they had a clearer understanding of the parameters they could cross – or not. “Before, we had one Saddam, now we have dozens,” a playwright who later went into exile told me. “We are terrified of who we might offend.”

In 2010, veteran actress Bushra Ismail told me, “Under Saddam we suffered from censorship, but now it’s the religious parties we have to be careful about offending. There’s a whole new set of ‘red lines’ we cannot cross.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, occupied Iraq was the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. The over 150 journalists and 54 media support workers killed between March 2003 and December 2011 were mostly the result of targeted killings rather than combat-related circumstances. In March 2013 CPJ’s Frank Smyth wrote “Iraq’s impunity rate – or the degree to which perpetrators have escaped prosecution for murdering the journalists – is the worst in the world. It is 100 percent. Even today ... authorities have shown no interest in investigating these murders.”

Writer and activist Dirk Adriaensens, a member of the Executive Committee of the BRussells Tribunal, estimates the figures are even higher. As he wrote in his 2014 article “The killing of journalists In Iraq,” “At least 404 media professionals have been killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003, among them 374 Iraqis, according to The BRussells Tribunal statistics. The impunity in Iraq is far worse than anywhere else in the world.”

The Brussells Tribunal also documents that over 400 Iraqi academics were killed between 2003 and 2011, saying the “wave of assassinations appears non-partisan and non-sectarian, targeting women as well as men, and is countrywide.”

Among the hundreds of journalists killed in post-invasion Iraq was Iraqi Yasser Salihee, a special correspondent for Knight Ridder who, following a May 2005 feature in the New York Times magazine on the U.S.-backed “wolf brigade” being modeled on Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s, was investigating U.S.-backed militias carrying out extrajudicial killings of opponents of the occupation. He was killed by a single bullet to the head by an American sniper as he approached a checkpoint hastily set up by Iraqi and U.S. troops near his western Baghdad home.

Also killed in August of the same year was my acquaintance and colleague, American journalist Steven Vincent, who was kidnapped in central Basra in broad daylight by men wearing Iraqi police uniforms, interrogated, beaten and then shot to death. Vincent had been investigating corruption and extrajudicial killings by U.S.- and U.K.- backed Shi’ite militias.

The tradition of government complicity in the deaths of journalists continues today, as Iraqi journalists and activists must play a deadly game of dodgeball between ISIS in the north and militias in government-controlled areas in the pay of various national interests.

There are new names and faces to mourn – those whose lives were taken in the latest round of killings by “unknown entities,” who most believe have ties to the Iraqi and Iranian regimes.

Activist Khaled al Kahlidi was assassinated near his home in Kut, south of Baghdad, and now the protest movement has another fresh-faced martyr – his likeness still being tweeted endlessly as he stands cautious but proud in a Tahrir Square selfie, in front of Jawad Salim’s famous Monument to Freedom. His eyes bear a premonitory sadness that seems to speak of all the martyrs to the Iraqi cause that have come before him.

Somehow Iraq’s latest tragedy reminds me of a time when freedom of speech in Baghdad was limited to staged press conferences by Baathist generals, and we journos had to pay “guides” – essentially spies from the Ministry of Information – for the privilege of their “services.” In this Alice in Wonderland meets Kafka world of the dying days of the Saddam regime, I recall a presidential “election” in 2002.

Despite there being only one candidate who “won” by “100 percent,” the regime claimed, we were led to a polling station for a “photo-op.” I asked a sympathetic “minder” why, in spite of the total lack of democracy, everyone seemed well-dressed and in good spirits – a kind of a “day-out” for beleaguered sanctions-plagued Iraqis.

“They’re pretending everything is normal,” he explained, “They need to do this to survive.”

Iraqis have been pretending everything is normal for quite some time now. But let’s hope that the current “pretense” that Iraq is a democracy – where citizens have the right to basic services like clean water, electricity, a free press and a government that serves them and not themselves – becomes a reality.

The change must, as always come from within, but more vigorous support for pro-democracy activists from the international community is key to the success of the growing movement that explicitly rejects the post-invasion sectarian cronyism and corruption that feeds the cycle of violence in Iraq.

As I’ve been saying for years, the way to encourage democracy in Iraq is not by supporting brutal dictators – pre- or post-invasion – bombing and starving a captive civilian populace for years, or participating in illegal invasions and occupations. The way forward is through supporting civil society.

The current Iraqi protest movement is living proof of the incredible resilience of a long-suffering people who, while trapped in circumstances beyond their control, still insist on fighting for their basic human rights. Let us hope that, with the right support, their right to protest and speak out without fatal consequences will prevail.

Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars is the author of “Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: a Woman’s Journey Through Iraq,” and is currently working on a political travelogue of Iraqi ancient sites as well as a documentary film on interfaith solidarity in the face of terror.

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