Iraq's flawed media law

Sometime soon the Iraqi parliament will be asked to approve a new protection law for journalists (the draft was approved by the cabinet at the end of July).

I have pointed out before that "liberated" Iraq, far from becoming a model for the region, is rapidly acquiring the negative characteristics of other Arab regimes – and the proposed media law is no exception. It is typical of the laws found in most Arab countries, and it is also typical of what is bad about them.

Article XIX, the global campaign for free expression, has just produced a damning critique of the draft and the organisation's director, Agnes Callamard, has written about it here. Although Article XIX examines the proposals in detail, clause by clause, several key points stand out.

Iraq has produced the draft without reference to its obligations under international law – in this case the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This is a very common problem. Arab countries seem only too keen to sign up to international treaties of this kind but then usually fail to incorporate their provisions into local legislation. (The issue is discussed here and more fully in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.)

The proposed Iraqi law is conceptually flawed. It has been put forward to deal with a specific problem (attacks on journalists in Iraq) but without much heed to broader legal principles or the long-term implications. Again, this is a very common problem with legislation in Arab countries. 

The main flaw in the Iraqi draft – and it's a fundamental one – is the idea that the rights of some citizens (i.e. journalists) deserve a higher level of protection than the rights of others. Article XIX comments: 

There is no justification within international human rights law for such a provision ... All human beings have the same human rights, such as the rights to life and to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which should be protected by the state.

Secondly, the draft law discriminates among journalists by offering protection to some but not others. Apart from adopting an outdated definition of journalists, it only applies to those who are members of the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate. This membership requirement, as Article XIX points out, conflicts with internationally-established principles on freedom of expression.

Finally, the proposed law contains various examples of bad or loose drafting – another problem that plagues much of the legislation in Arab countries. Sometimes the loose drafting is deliberate but often it's sheer carelessness.

For example, the Iraqi draft talks about punishing "any violation against a journalist while he is performing his journalistic role". The meaning of "violation" is unclear, and the phrase could be interpreted as applying only when a journalist is at work. What happens if a journalist is attacked outside working hours for something he/she has written?

Once clause says: "Journalists are permitted to carry out their work without interference on the part of the security forces unless there is legitimate justification." The phrase "legitimate justification", Article XIX says, falls far short of international standards and "is likely to be given a broad interpretation by the security forces"; it ought to make clear that "any restrictions on this right must be provided for by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate". 

The draft also imposes a duty on "the security agencies" (again, undefined) to investigate threats or attacks "and to make every effort to punish the perpetrators". As Article XIX notes, punishment is a matter for the courts, not the security agencies.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 August 2009.