14 September 2011

Al-Mahdi's death big loss for media and activist community; new law fails to protect journalists' rights

Hadi al-Mahdi
Hadi al-Mahdi
Iraqi journalist, filmmaker and playwright Hadi al-Mahdi was well known for his missives to the government, his demands for peace, and more recently, as a leading organiser of Iraq's recent pro-democracy protests. But for his actions he has paid with his life. On 8 September, he was shot dead in his home in Baghdad in an apparently targeted attack to silence him, report Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

"The killing of Hadi al-Mahdi sadly highlights that journalism in Iraq remains a deadly profession," said Human Rights Watch. "After more than six years of democratic rule, Iraqis who publicly express their views still do so at great peril."

Al-Mahdi's popular talk radio programme, "To Whomever Listens," ran three times a week in Baghdad and covered social and political issues in Iraq - a close friend of his told CPJ that he had been calling on the government to provide better water, electricity and public services for Iraqis.

Through his Facebook page, al-Mahdi organised pro-democracy protests in Baghdad every Friday, including the Friday of the week of his death. He was undeterred, even though back in February, he was arrested, beaten and blindfolded, and forced to pledge he would never participate in a demonstration again.

According to Human Rights Watch, just hours before his death, he posted the following message describing recent death threats against him:

"Enough... I have lived the last three days in a state of terror. There are some who call me and warn me of raids and arrests of protesters. There is someone saying that the government will do this and that. There is someone with a fake name coming on to Facebook to threaten me. I will take part in the demonstrations, for I am one of its supporters. I firmly believe that the political process embodies a national, economic, and political failure. It deserves to change, and we deserve a better government. In short, I do not represent any political party or any other side, but rather the miserable reality in which we live... I am sick of seeing our mothers beg in the streets and I am sick of news of politicians' gluttony and of their looting of Iraq's riches."

Ammar al-Shahbander, head of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Iraq and a friend of al-Mahdi's, told Human Rights Watch, "This attack was different because usually journalists here have been killed in the line of duty, and you expect fatalities in war zones. But sitting in your own home and getting shot like this is too much to bear."

Al-Shahbander expressed hope that al-Mahdi's killing would not deter Iraq's journalists from reporting on events in the country. "So many journalists have been kidnapped and killed in Iraq but it doesn't matter how many are tortured, intimidated, or killed - journalists will continue doing their jobs," he said. "This attack just shows how desperate the enemies of democracy have become."

The killing of al-Mahdi follows years of targeted violence against journalists in Iraq. Since 1992, 150 journalists have been killed in the country, including five journalists killed in 2011 alone, according to CPJ. On 29 August, an assailant used a pistol to beat a prominent journalist, Asos Hardi, in Sulaimaniya, requiring Hardi to be hospitalised and get 32 stitches, reports Human Rights Watch.

Iraq has attempted to safeguard journalists in a new law, adopted on 9 August. But RSF and ARTICLE 19 say it falls short. For instance, says ARTICLE 19, it doesn't meet international human rights obligations.

According to RSF, the new law lacks concrete measures: there are no punishments outlined for those who violate the law's principles, no compensation fund, and no training for the police and judiciary in protecting journalists and prosecuting attacks on the press - to name a few shortcomings.

"The Iraqi authorities should adopt concrete measures and make effective resources available instead of limiting themselves to statements of intent," said RSF.

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