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Iraqi scribes caught in political crossfire

Journalists in Baghdad are under intense pressure from political, ethnic and religious groups.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2006 11:41 IST

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi journalists were threatened, detained, tortured and killed -- victims of a system that tightly controlled what was written about the country's Baathist leader.

The destruction of the Information Ministry -- one of the main instruments of Saddam-era censorship -- during the US-led invasion to oust the Iraqi leader in March 2003 symbolically ended decades of zero press freedom.

But journalists' initial optimism that they would finally be able to report freely has been eroded. In today's democratic Iraq, they face many of the same dangers, as well as new threats.

Journalists are under intense pressure from political, ethnic and religious groups and there is a risk that interference could intensify as parties jostle for power during talks to form a new government.

Reporters are also targeted by Sunni Arab insurgents and militias tied to political factions.

"Our journalists have been intimidated and harmed in many ways. They fear being killed, detained or dismissed if they criticise a party or even the government itself," said Moayad al-Lami, secretary general of the Iraqi Journalists Association.

Muntaha al-Qaisy, editor-in-chief and owner of al-Diyar newspaper in Baghdad, was targeted after she wrote about alleged random detentions by Interior Ministry forces -- allegations the ministry denies.

"Two masked men visited my offices and told me to stop writing about it. They warned me that I was endangering my son and daughter," she told Reuters.

When Qaisy ignored the threat another man visited her home and gave her what he called a final warning. "I was totally afraid, not for myself, but for my children," said Qaisy, who has since shut down her newspaper.

Under Saddam, there were four official newspapers in Iraq. Today there are more than 160, showing the hunger for uncensored, independent news. But journalists say they increasingly find themselves caught in political crossfire.

Before, censorship was enforced by the Information Ministry. Now, there are many more players trying to control the news -- insurgents, ethnic and political factions, and the government.

Along with the US-funded Iraqi Media Network, which owns al-Sabah newspaper and the public broadcaster al-Iraqiya -- seen by many Iraqis as a mouthpiece for the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari -- there are also the newspapers controlled by the various political factions.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the most powerful party in the ruling Islamist Shi'ite Alliance, has al-Bayna daily as well as al-Forat television; Jaafari's Dawa party has al-Dawa; and former prime minister Iyad Allawi has the daily Baghdad.