Reporters Without Borders called today for speedy action to replace restrictive media regulations imposed by the US and British forces occupying Iraq with clear and coherent laws.
In a report on developments in the three months since the US-British takeover of the country, it welcomed the vigorous revival of the media after three decades of grim repression under President Saddam's regime, but expressed fears the new freedoms could be eroded if resistance grew to the occupying forces.
It also called for the ill-defined powers and structure of the Iraq Media Network (IMN), set up by the US as part of the post-war media, to be rapidly and clearly spelled out.
The press freedom organisation noted that after an especially deadly war for journalists (10 killed, at least 10 wounded and journalists Fred Nérac and Hussein Osman still missing), working conditions in Iraq were still perilous and attacks on the media were continuing.
These have included US troops ransacking the Baghdad offices of
Al-Adala, organ of the country's main Shiite political party, Iraqi police arresting a crew of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera as they were filming an anti-US demonstration, the point-blank-range shooting death of a freelance British cameraman in central Baghdad and the killing of the Mosul bureau chief of a Kurdish TV station in an armed clash.
It noted that the British army had only in the past two weeks begun searching for traces of Nérac and Osman, who worked for the British TV network ITN, near where they disappeared in southern Iraq on 22 March.
The 3,800-word report, after a fact-finding mission earlier this month, describes the Iraqi media's radical transformation since the US capture of Baghdad into a prolific written press in full flower, with at least 85 different newspapers and magazines.
Dozens of once-banned cybercafés have opened too and shops selling satellite TV receiver dishes, also banned by Saddam Hussein, are doing a roaring trade all over the capital.
There is less diversity in the broadcast media, but some new radio and TV stations have been set up, notably an AM and FM radio station, TV station and a daily paper, Al-Sabah, all of them funded and supervised by the US-controlled Iraqi Media Network, which has also taken over from the old information ministry and plans to build up a state media.
Journalists told the Reporters Without Borders mission they were still censoring themselves, even though they openly criticise what many call "the occupation forces." A decree dealing with "inimical media activity" issued in early June by the country's US civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, bans incitement to violence against the US-British "Coalition" forces, as well as incitement to "ethnic and religious hatred" - vague terms whose interpretation by the US authorities could be used to crack down on the local media.
The general lawlessness also threatens Iraq's newly-free journalists. Although only the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party have been allowed to keep their militias, journalists fear reprisals from supporters of other political parties used to settling disputes by violence. Some politicians routinely accuse journalists who criticise them of being saddamiye (wanting Saddam's return) and the messages thought to be from Saddam broadcast recently by Arab satellite TV stations have revived fear of the dictator, who is still very present in people's minds.