Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Iraq: Suicide car bombing an assault on the fundamental principles of freedom of expression and respect for life

Source: Human Rights Watch (HRW) The suicide car bombing that destroyed the Baghdad bureau of Al Arabiya News Channel and killed at least six people on July 26, 2010, was an assault on the fundamental principles of freedom of expression and respect for life, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bomber detonated the vehicle in front of the station's bureau in the city center. Three security guards and an office assistant were among the dead, and 10 people were wounded. Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, accused al Qaeda in Mesopotamia of being behind the attack. No group has claimed responsibility yet. Human Rights Watch urged the Iraqi government to take all possible steps to apprehend and hold accountable anyone found to have contributed to the bombing.

"Today's attack on Al Arabiya was designed to spread terror among journalists and ordinary citizens in Iraq," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to ensure that journalists can freely go about their business."

Major General al-Moussawi said that Iraqi officials had obtained information three months ago that al Qaeda planned to attack a number of media offices, including Al Arabiya, that took a clear position against the group and terrorism.

Extremists have targeted the Saudi-owned news channel and its journalists before. On September 9, 2008, the station's Iraq bureau chief, Jawad Hattab, escaped an attempted assassination when he discovered an explosive device under the seat of his car as he prepared to leave home for work. In October 2006, a car bomb targeting Al Arabiya's previous Baghdad bureau killed seven people and wounded 20. In February 2006, armed men kidnapped and killed Atwar Bahjat, an anchorwoman, Khaled Mahmoud Al Falahi, a cameraman, and Adnan Khairallah, a technician, in Samarra.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 140 journalists have been killed in Iraq, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Iraq remains one of the deadliest countries for journalists, but there has been a decline in media fatalities and abductions during the past two years, consistent with an overall drop in violence in Iraq.

Media professionals also encounter other risks to their work. Earlier this year, in a letter to Iraq's official Communication and Media Commission (CMC), Human Rights Watch urged the government to suspend tight restrictions on the country's broadcast media. The regulations prohibit broadcasters from "inciting violence or sectarianism" without giving any clear guidelines as to what that encompasses. The regulations also stipulate that all broadcast organizations and their journalists must secure permission from the commission to operate in Iraq but provide little information about the criteria the government uses in issuing licenses. Media organizations found violating the regulations risk closure, suspensions, fines, and equipment confiscation. The vagueness of the regulations gives government authorities space to engage in arbitrary censorship and restrict the freedom of the media.

A draft media law for the "protection" of journalists currently before parliament also raises concerns because it narrowly defines a "journalist" as only those media workers who are both working for an established news outlet and affiliated with the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate.

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