According to the Press Freedom Advocacy Association, 33 journalists have been threatened by members of unidentified militias since the protests began on 1 October. The figure is all the more alarming because the threats are increasingly being followed up by acts of violence.
Writer and citizen-journalist Amjed Al-Dahamat was gunned down by an unidentified armed group in the southeastern province of Maysan on 7 November after repeatedly being threatened for weeks.
Muhammad Al-Shamari, a member of the Iraqi Observatory for Press Freedoms (which is linked to the national journalists’ union), was kidnapped near his home on 17 November and remained missing until released 24 hours later. He had often posted information on Facebook about the crackdown on the protests and had received threats from many quarters. No information about the circumstances of his abduction or release has emerged.
Media outlets have not been spared either. Gunmen attacked and ransacked at least three Baghdad TV channels during the first week of the protests. The harassment is such that many journalists have opted to stop working. RSF has been told that many have left Baghdad or even Iraq altogether.
“In this climate of growing violence, which is targeting the media in particular, the Iraqi authorities are failing to fulfil their role and duty to protect journalists,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “Everything must be done to prevent more serious violations of this kind. Journalists are already struggling to provide coverage and, if the state does nothing, they could be reduced to silence as in the worst dictatorships.”
For years, Iraq has had around 60 militias linked to religious groups, political parties or foreign governments that operate in parallel to the regular forces and often escape government control. Their existence makes it hard to identify who is responsible for threats. Taking advantage of the chaos accompanying the current protests, these groups are targeting reporters who film the unrest, especially live rounds being fired at protesters.
Aside from their armed wings, these various sources of influence have armies of anonymous online social network accounts, some of which have been sharing a blacklist of journalists said to work “for Israel and the United States.” Dozens of these accounts, now using an “Agents of the Joker” hashtag to allude to the United States, are currently circulating photos of journalists – identified as enemies and dressed like clowns against the backdrop of a US flag – like wanted notices.
Iraq is ranked 156th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.