Iraq’s new media law, the product of several years of debate, is supposed to protect journalists, but it has been the subject of much controversy. Hazim al-Sharaa, an IWPR editor in Iraq, looks at why some fear the legislation will restrict rather than enhance freedom of speech.
Can you describe the new media law?
This legislation is designed to regulate journalistic activities in Iraq. President Jalal Talabani says the law stems from a wish to respect “freedom of the press and expression, as well as guaranteeing the rights of Iraqi journalists… and their important role in making democracy a reality in the new Iraq”.
There were high hopes that this law would protect Iraqi journalists from intimidation and harassment by officials, and lead to greater freedom of expression. However, many on the Iraqi media scene worry that the law will actually serve to restrict freedom of speech.
When it was in draft form, the bill was criticised for applying only to members of the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate, IJS, an independent trade union that receives federal government funding. Anyone not a member of the IJS would have been excluded. However, when the law was finally passed – it has been in place since August 2011 – this was among several points amended from the earlier version, so that a journalist is now defined as “any individual practicing a full-time journalism job”.
However, concerns remain that this still excludes citizen journalists and bloggers, who have played an important role in building the modern Iraqi media.
The law also states that journalists cannot be arrested or interrogated without a warrant and without their place of employment being alerted about the alleged violation, although there is no provision for legal aid.
But benefits such as pension rights and eligibility for compensation for injuries received in the line of work still only apply to members of the IJS.