The first months of this year have been grim for free speech in Iraq.
As revolts swept across the Middle East and North Africa, they spread to Iraqi cities and towns, but took on a very different cast.
In February, in places like Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit, protesters took to the streets, intent on reform -focused on ending corruption and the chronic shortages of food, water, electricity and jobs – but not toppling the government of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The response by government security forces, who have arrested, beaten, and shot protesters, leaving hundreds dead or wounded, however, was similar to that of other autocratic rulers around the region.
Attacks by Iraqi forces on freedom of the press, in the form of harassment, detention, and assaults on individual journalists, raids of radio stations, the offices of newspapers and press freedom groups have also shown the dark side of Maliki’s regime.
Many journalists have been prevented from covering protests or have curtailed their reporting in response to brutality, raising the spectre of a return to the days of Saddam Hussein’s regime when press freedom was a fiction.
Maliki’s US allies, however, have turned a blind eye to the violence and repression, with the top spokesman for the US military in Iraq praising the same Iraqi units which eyewitnesses have identified as key players in the crackdown while ignoring the outrages attributed to them.
In addition to providing training to these units, the US military is currently focused on upgrading the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, including the creation a national intelligence and operations centre and more sophisticated use and understanding of social media, which some fear may further increase state repression.
Maliki Cracks Down
After ousting long-time dictator Saddam Hussein from power in April 2003, the US government pumped an estimated half a billion dollars or more, much of it by way of the US defence department, into the development of a national press in Iraq.
The Pentagon’s plan, as documents obtained by the National Security Archive show, was to dominate the media landscape in cooperation with a friendly Iraqi national government.
In spite of this, an initial bloom of independent media outlets created a vibrant environment for journalism in post-Saddam Iraq.
Sectarian divisions, a lethal insurgency, and governmental interference followed, however, and took an increasing toll on the free press.
“Even before February’s surge of violence, the deteriorating situation had caught the attention of the world’s media monitors,” writes Sherry Ricchiardi, an expert on the press in the Middle East, in a newly issued report to the Centre for International Media Assistance on “Iraq’s News Media After Saddam”.
Samer Muscati, a researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division who just completed a fact-finding mission in Iraq, echoed this, noting that – while more journalists were killed in attacks during the height of Iraq’s insurgency – the strengthening of the Iraqi government has led to different hazards for reporters.
“They’re at more risk, now, of being harassed or interrogated or targeted by security forces or their proxies,” he told me by telephone.
Reports suggest that Maliki is now intent on dismantling much of what remains of the free press in Iraq.
At 2 a.m. on February 23, 20 armed men, clad in distinctive uniforms topped by red berets or helmets bearing a skull and cross-bones, burst into the Baghdad offices of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an Iraqi press freedom group.
For more than an hour they tore apart the facility and confiscated computers, external hard drives, cameras, cell phones and documents, according to a detailed report by Human Rights Watch.
Forty-eight hours later, on what was billed as a “Day of Rage”, Iraqi security forces detained 300 leading journalists, lawyers, artists and intellectuals who took part in or covered the protests over domestic issues and government accountability.
Four journalists who were picked up long after leaving the protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square told the Washington Post that troops operating out of the headquarters of an army intelligence unit had beaten them and threatened them with execution.
Reporters also had their cameras and memory cards confiscated, Muscati told me. Other assaults on press freedom, including attacks on radio and television stations and the roughing up of reporters, took place all across the country.
In early March, following another round of demonstrations, members of Iraq’s Federal Police Force and the Baghdad Operation Command, a special force controlled by Maliki, arrived at offices of the Iraqi Nation party and the Iraqi Communist party – two political parties critical of the prime minister.
They were told they had 24 hours to vacate the premises. The publicly-owned buildings were being turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence.
Jassin Helfi, a leader of the Communist party, said that their offices and the headquarters of the party’s newspaper were targeted following a summit between Maliki’s party and the Communist party’s leadership.
“The objective of the meeting was to try and convince us not to participate in the demonstrations, and when we did, our punishment was the order to close our offices,” Helfi told the New York Times.
In the days after the crackdown, I talked with Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, the chief spokesman for the United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I), and asked him about Iraq’s army intelligence units and Federal Police Force.
He had a markedly different view of the US-trained security forces that have reportedly been deployed to squelch dissent and talked to me about his own personal relationship with one of the units.
Involved in training Iraqi forces almost every year since 2003 (the only exception being 2007), Buchanan told me by telephone: “I personally was involved in training the Federal Police a number of years ago and it’s pretty inspirational seeing them on several subsequent tours and how much progress they have made.”
Buchanan also made special reference to the instruction provided by NATO advisers to both street-level federal policemen and leaders in higher headquarters, singling out Italy’s Carabinieri for their contribution. “They have helped to build a Federal Police Force that is the pride of the country,” he said.
Seen by the US military as a key to freeing up the Iraqi Army from policing duties, the Federal Police have received instruction, according to Buchanan, “on everything from marksmanship, patrolling procedures, arrest procedures, etc. all the way up to counter-terrorism operations.”
As for the Iraqi Army’s intelligence units, Buchanan told me that, at this very moment, the US is heavily involved in upgrading their capabilities. “This is actually one of our major focus areas for the remainder of 2011,” he said.
The Iraqi government already has an impressive intelligence gathering capability when it comes to human intelligence (called HUMINT by the US military), Buchanan explained to me, but lacks a comprehensive, national computer-based system for collecting, analysing and disseminating that information.
“Somebody who may be running sources as part of a HUMINT network in Mosul,” he said offering an example, might keep that information in notebook and might never send it on to authorities in Baghdad.
As a result, the US military is helping the Iraqi security forces develop a national intelligence and operations centre to share information across agencies and throughout the country, creating a massive government database.
Samer Muscati says there are definite accountability issues, even if US forces are scheduled to leave Iraq this year.
“If the US is training these troops it has a responsibility to make sure that they’re trained in ways that respect people’s human rights, respect due process, and don’t lead to abusive behaviours or coercive methods,” he told me.
In an email interview, Sherry Ricchiardi suggested that the US military could better train Iraqi security forces on how to deal with the media, specifically breaking news situations where military and police have often focused on thwarting reporters’ efforts to cover stories.
Like other countries across the region, social media has played a major role in activist organising in Iraq.
The Washington Post noted that the same progressive young Iraqis who organised the February 25 “Day of Rage” that brought tens of thousands, from all across the country, into the streets saw their Facebook group leap from 700 followers to 4,000 in a country with extremely limited internet access (another group they started had, by mid-March, 10,000 members).
Since then, Facebook has played a widening role in the protest movement.
In Egypt, the Mubarak regime shut down the internet in an attempt to squelch dissent. In Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain, the governments have all taken steps to censor or stifle internet-aided activism.
In Iraq, the US military is currently instructing the Iraqi government on more effective and sophisticated use of the internet.
“We, right now, are dealing with the ministry of defence to help them understand how to employ Facebook,” said Buchanan.
The goal, he said, was for the Iraqi military to more effectively engage with Iraqi citizens, but as with the training offered to Iraqi police, fears exist that it could be employed for more sinister purposes.
Human Rights Watch’s Muscati explained that protest organisers in Baghdad said that they’ve seen on-line countermeasures employed against their organising efforts on Facebook.
“People are being targeted via social media,” Muscati said. “Abuses by the security forces and others are happening now. Even though Iraq is not as sophisticated as other governments in terms of its use of social media, it seems to be effectively countering the protests to some extent.”
Facts on the Ground
“Conditions on the ground continue to worsen for Iraq’s journalists,” Sherry Ricchiardi told me.
This is backed up by figures released, last month, by the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory which counted more than 160 attacks on reporters, including 33 arrests or detentions and 40 instances of obstruction or the confiscation or damaging of equipment, over just two weeks.
Additionally, according to Muscati, state security forces have killed more than 17 protesters and injured more than 250 persons during the recent unrest.
General Buchanan talked about democracy, dissent, and protests in Iraq only obliquely, preferring to focus on what the Iraqi government was learning from demonstrations elsewhere in the region.
He said that unrest throughout the Middle East and North Africa had “reinforced the Iraqis’ understanding of what democracy is all about.”
While noting that Iraq’s media was important to keeping the Maliki regime accountable to the people, Buchanan failed to address the severe crackdown on press freedom or the violence against journalists and indirectly mentioned only that the Iraqi “government is wrestling with how do they do that [allow for press freedom] and ensure protection of the people at the same time.”
Sherry Ricchiardi sees the recent repression in starker terms. “It is part of the orchestrated crackdown on media,” she wrote to me. “The [Iraqi] government and security forces appear to be getting bolder in attacks on media.”
When asked if General Lloyd Austin, the commander of US forces in Iraq, had addressed the issue of media repression with his Iraqi counterparts, Capt. Dan Churchill, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq, explained to me that the general applauded the Iraqi government’s “decision to investigate alleged incidents of excessive force by the Iraqi security forces.”
When asked for an official statement on the crackdown, Churchill responded by email: “We condemn any and all attacks on media organisations and journalists in Iraq. The protection of journalistic freedom is an essential aspect of all democratic societies.”
The US military continues, however, to advise and train Iraqi security forces and bolster their potential to suppress free speech.
It already seems to be taking toll. “I think journalists are more reluctant to cover protests after what happened on February 25th because they’re concerned for their security and they got the message that they shouldn’t be doing this,” Muscati said.
If more journalists are silenced, more media outlets shut down and self-censorship takes hold, the results could be catastrophic.
“The question now is whether Iraq will move forward on human rights and due process,” Muscati told me, “or whether will revert to being a police state again.”
Nick Turse is an historian, essayist, investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books). He is also the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.