This past week, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission ordered the closure of 44 foreign and domestic media outlets in the country. Among them was the Voice of America, a U.S.-run news organization and quite possibly our biggest public diplomacy tool.
This is a bold move by the Iraqis to spite the U.S., which helped established the current government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared that the initiative was not politically charged but due to a “license dispute.” Critics have countered that the move is in response to how the media has presented recent sectarian violence and is intended to quell any media-generated support to organize a no-confidence vote against him.
These concerns are corroborated by Freedom House, which lists the Iraqi press in its “not free” category. Freedom House stated that despite the 2005 constitution that guarantees freedom of the press, reporters are continually charged for libel and defamation using the highly restrictive 1969 penal code.
Iraq also ranked dead last in the 2010 impunity index, a ranking system based on the rate of arrests and persecutions in cases related to alleged journalist assassinations. In 2010, Freedom House claimed that of the 92 suspected murders of journalists since 2003, not a single prosecution has taken place. Earlier this year, reporter and government critic Hadi al-Mehdi was shot dead after months of threats and a previous shooting.
It is quite ironic that Maliki, who had fled Iraq after being sentenced to death under Saddam Hussein dictatorship, is taking actions eerily similar to the government that the U.S. overthrew just a few years back.
In order for Iraq to take advantage of its potential growth following the departure of U.S. combat troops, it needs to present itself as a nation committed to freedom and democracy. Abusing technicalities such as media licenses in order to silence opposition clearly does not promote an image of freedom and hinders Iraq’s progress toward being viewed as a legitimate state.