By Fred Abrahams, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Fred Abrahams is a special adviser at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
How Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki plans to defeat the horribly abusive Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and other Sunni groups that have seized control of large swathes of Iraq remains unclear. And under his government’s new media regulations, the Iraqi public isn’t likely to find out.
The new guidelines, issued on June 18 by the state media commission to remain in effect “during the war on terror,” in effect require local and international media to cheer on the government. For example, the rules forbid media from reporting information from insurgent forces and compel coverage of government forces in only glowing terms.
As one Iraqi journalist put it, the guidelines “basically ban journalists from covering war activities, because whatever you report about terrorists could be considered support for them.”
Some Iraqi media are known for their harsh sectarian lines, including outlets that out-and-out incite violence. But the new restrictions go far beyond what international law allows. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says governments may limit some rights, including on media, but only when strictly required by the situation. The restrictions must be specified by law, demonstrably necessary to protect a legitimate aim, in a manner that is proportionate to protect that aim, and subject to judicial review.
Article 1 of the Iraqi guidelines forbid media from broadcasting or publishing material that “may be interpreted as being against the security forces.” Instead, media must “focus on the security achievements of the armed forces, by repetition throughout the day.” This includes “praising the heroic acts of security personnel.”
Broadcasting a statement from an armed group or an interview with one of its members is forbidden, article 5 says. “Do not seek a ‘scoop’ at the expense of your country,” the media overseers warn. It seems that this prohibition does not apply to statements from the abusive Shi`a militias aligned with the government, though.
Media should “spread enthusiasm and a fighting spirit against terror,” article 9 demands. This means “patriotic anthems and broadcasting teeming crowds and the heroic deeds of our security forces.” Whether the media commission considers the reported executions of Sunni prisoners by security forces in Baaquba, Tal Afar and other places heroic or not remains unclear.
So far, no media outlet is known to have been closed based on the new rules, but journalists with independent Iraqi media have said they are being bullied by commission and government officials.
On June 24, Egypt barred two privately owned Iraqi television stations, al-Baghdadiyya and al-Rafidain, from Egypt’s main satellite system, reportedly after complaints about their content from Baghdad. Al-Rafidain is known for sometimes virulent pro-Sunni programming, but al-Baghdadiyya offers investigative reporting critical of the government, and is not known to have promoted violence.
In contrast, the Iraqi authorities have taken no action against media that support the government or pro-government militias, such as the Kita’ib Hezbollah militia (Al-Itijah TV) or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq militia (Al-Ahd TV). Both stations frequently broadcast calls for violence against Sunnis.
The international media are not immune. On June 19, an official from the Oil Ministry, speaking on state-run Iraqiyya TV, threatened international wire services for publishing what he claimed was misinformation about fighting between government and ISIS forces at the oil refinery in Beiji. The pan-Arab Arabiyya TV has also reported coming under pressure.
In addition to being inconsistent with international law, these steps to silence the media will hinder efforts to resolve Iraq’s dire political, economic and security crisis. Balanced reporting and open debate, rather than enforced cheerleading, are much more likely to help the country step back from the brink.