Mysterious attacks on Baghdad news bureaus spark fears of press intimidation
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Attacks by unidentified masked gunmen on news outlets in Baghdad over the weekend have sparked alarm across Iraq, with the UN and press freedom groups on Monday calling on the government to protect journalists.
Mohammed Abd Al Khaleq picked his way through the rubble of smashed studio equipment, broken hard drives and ripped cables at the Dijla TV offices in Baghdad. The destruction occurred on Saturday, when masked gunmen attacked the TV station as well as the Baghdad offices of Kurdistan-based NRT TV and the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya.
The attack took just 20 minutes, said Khaleq, an editor at Dijla who was one of a dozen staffers in the office Saturday night when the raid occurred. The destruction was massive. The entire building was ransacked, equipment was smashed or seized and then the newsroom was set on fire.
Khaleq presumes Dijla was targeted for its coverage of the deadly anti-government protests across Iraq. But like most journalists, he has no idea who carried out or planned the attacks.
"Seventeen cars arrived, in each car there were five people wearing black clothes. The vehicles had no license plates. They wore helmets and body armor. They were carrying light weapons with full military devices," Khaleq explained to a FRANCE 24 team. "There's no indication it was a government force, not the cars, not the insignia that any force is supposed to wear. This is a force without insignia, without an address, without number plates."
UN, media watchdog raises alarm
Responding to the attacks, the UN's top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, on Monday said she was "shocked at the vandalism (and) intimidation".
"Government efforts (are) required to protect journalists. Free media is the best safeguard of a strong democracy," she said.
Throughout the week, bloggers and activists across the south also reported receiving text messages and phone calls threatening them and their families over their coverage.
Iraq is ranked 156th out of 180 countries on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The media watchdog accused security forces of "disproportionate and unwarranted restriction of the right to inform".
"Instead of banning all journalistic activities, the security forces and local authorities have a duty to guarantee the safety of journalists so that they can do their reporting," said Sabrina Bennoui, RSF's Middle East desk head.
Bid to 'terrorise' media
Iraq's judiciary on Monday discussed legal action against those who attacked media stations as well as protesters.
Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said it was the first time he had witnessed such an attempt to "terrorise" media outlets.
"This is an organised, pre-planned operation to silence media. This is the fundamental way to oppress protesters," he told AFP.
"We expect more attacks," he warned.
Demonstrations first broke out last Tuesday in Iraq's capital and some southern cities, mostly attended by young protesters angry at mass corruption and unemployment.
News of gathering places for protests spread online.
The following day, authorities began restricting access to social media sites including Facebook and Instagram before completely shutting off the internet in all of Iraq, except the north.
Protesters say the aim was to block them from spreading footage of the violence by security forces dealing with demonstrations.
"The disruption comes at a critical time when Iraqis most need a voice," said cyber-security NGO NetBlocks, which has been tracking the blackout.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)