Journalists Unite to Demand an End to Violence and A “Fresh Start” for Press Freedom in Iraq

Journalists’ leaders from across Iraq this week announced a programme of action that will create a new and unified movement of journalists to combat violence against media, to foster ethical and genuinely independent journalism and to end the current cycle of political manipulation that has infected all sectors of media.

A new grouping – the Iraqi National Journalists Advisory Panel – which brings together progressive elements of the old journalists’ syndicate as well leaders of a new press union and Kurdish journalists, says the first priority is the elimination of all threats of violence against the journalists. Since the US invasion two years ago 73 media staff have been killed in the country, more than half of them Iraqi.

“For this first time the authentic and independent voice of Iraqi journalism can be heard,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary on Wednesday, announcing the new programme at a meeting in Amman on Media and Good Governance attended by governments and media experts from around the Arab world.

“This is a powerful call for a fresh start for press freedom in the country,” he said. “If our colleagues in Iraq succeed it will signal momentous change, not only for journalism in Iraq, but for media across the Arab world.”

The demands of the Iraqi journalists were hammered out at a four-day series of meetings in Brussels organised by the IFJ last weekend. The Iraqi journalists have agreed to hold a unity conference in Baghdad in April at which they will outline demands for new rules for media, a code of ethics, and urgent changes in the labour code to end what they describe as the scandalous conditions in which media staff and journalists work.

“Above all they want action and an end to worthless declarations of goodwill by well-meaning politicians,” said White. “Journalists are deeply cynical about promises of reform that are not accompanied by practical steps to confront the daily life and death crisis they face.”

The Iraqi journalists say news safety must be a top priority in building a new democratic Iraq and they have launched a new campaign called Report and Survive aimed at reducing the wave of violence against media. They are also calling for the release of media staff held hostage.

On April 8th this year they plan to hold demonstrations in towns across Iraq to protest over impunity in the killing of journalists. They say that all cases of violence, intimidation and killing of media staff must be investigated, independently and exhaustively. The date is the second anniversary of the US attack on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad in which two journalists died. These are two of 12 media deaths at the hands of US soldiers, which have yet be properly investigated and explained.

“On that day journalists around the world will once again protest over impunity secrecy over media deaths and, in particular, at the failure of the United States to take responsibility for its actions in Iraq which have led to the killing of journalists,” said White.

The IFJ says that the resignation last week of CNN news chief Eason Jordan, who quit under intense pressure from right-wing US commentators for comments he is alleged to have made at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last month when he highlighted the failure of US military to protect journalists was evidence of “a culture of denial” in the US.

“A defender of journalism and journalists’ rights has been hounded out by a toxic mix of hysteria, intolerance and ignorance over the crisis facing journalists in Iraq,” said White. The IFJ says the April 8 focus on US responsibility over attacks on media staff would continue each year until Washington is ready to admits its mistakes.

As well as news safety issues, the Iraqi journalists are calling for widespread internal reforms that will create better ethical balance in the performance of Iraqi media. They say that action must be taken to provide professional training and improve media standards.

In particular, they call on media and their sources to avoid forms of journalism, both in terms of images and language that contributes to a continuation of a culture of intolerance and violence in the country.

The IFJ has developed an extensive project to promote professional unity and improvements in working conditions and co-ordinators have been appointed representing different journalists’ groups working out of Baghdad and Kurdistan in the north.

The IFJ also plans to open up an international solidarity office for journalists in Iraq.

“Although Iraqi journalists work in a twilight world of intimidation and pressure there is an amazing sense of optimism,” White told the Amman conference. “They know that much more needs to be done, and they are ready to play their part.

“They want political leadership that will deliver the support needed to create a genuinely pluralist and professional media system for Iraq and run by Iraqis without grandiose media projects from the outside whose credibility is tainted by funding by governments who appear to interested only in media that will support their policies.”

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 110 countries