ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Iraq’s Communication and Media Commission (CMC) recently called on all the media organizations working in the country to stop what they called abuses against "national and religious symbols," a move a press freedom advocacy group on Thursday described as "disruptive" to the profession's core function.
According to a document issued by the CMC, a government-linked body called on "all licensed media organizations" to "stop any abuses against national and religious symbols."
This wording in the document appears to include all media outlets operating in the country, local as well as foreign press organizations with offices in Iraq.
The exact definition of the term "symbol" in the context of the CMC statement is unclear as some Iraqis often describe party leaders, clerics or officials as such and see offenses towards them as crossing red lines. The CMC’s decision is "based on the authorities given to us by virtue of decree 65 of 2004, which granted our entity the regulation of the media and communication sectors in the country."
Human rights groups and legislative experts have long criticized such vaguely worded and open-ended language in Iraqi legislation and regulations, saying they are prone to loose interpretations that can lead to draconian measures and politically motivated prosecutions.
The Commission called on the media to "adopt objectivity and transparency in covering events, and abide by the principles, codes of the profession, and practice."
"Otherwise," read the document, "legal action will be taken against violators."
In response to the move, the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), a media rights watchdog based in Baghdad, said the CMC is attempting to "intimidate local and foreign media."
The decision is "bad" and will prove "disruptive" to the work of the media and journalists, the JFO stated and called on Iraqi lawmakers to stand against the CMC ruling.
The commission had earlier halted the broadcast of international outlets and the closed down offices of television stations in Iraq, among them Al Jazeera and Asharq Al-Awsat. It also maintains a ban on a number of websites.
The decision of the media body "represents a deviation from the democratic customs pursued by Iraq after" 2003, the JFO said.
The Observatory also called on Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to "take active and effective steps in the current phase and the future, including stopping the arbitrary measures issued by the [CMC]."
Iraq ranks low on the Press Freedom Index published yearly by Reporters Without Borders, compiling the assessments of a panel of experts on the countries. According to their 2018 rankings, the nation is at 160th place out of a total of 180, placing just four points higher than its eastern neighbor, Iran.
Editing by John J. Catherine