Page last updated at 21:34 GMT, Sunday, 3 May 2009 22:34 UK

Pressures muzzling Iraqi journalists

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baghdad

File image of the aftermath of a blast in Baghdad on 18 April 2007
Iraqi journalists face both danger and censorship in their work, activists say

"It is safer to walk around Baghdad with an AK-47 than with a camera," says Iraqi journalist Youssef Ismail.

On Sunday he joined dozens of his colleagues in a Baghdad hotel to mark World Press Freedom Day, but there was not much to celebrate.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein more journalists have died in Iraq than anywhere else in the world.

An estimated 225 media workers have been killed over the last six years. To this day Iraqi journalists have to take enormous risks to get the news.

Yet in the early days of the war Iraqi journalists often talked about their new-found freedom to report without restrictions - something they could never do under Saddam Hussein.

"It was so exciting to be free to tell the story, to report things as we saw them," says Ahmed Obeidi, a journalist who during Saddam's time worked for the government news agency.

But six years since the dictator fell, many in Iraq fear that freedom of expression is being muzzled once again.

Pressure from above

Last year, as the security situation slowly improved and the government finally gained more strength, Iraqi journalists started complaining about new pressure from officials.

The government does not want journalists to do their jobs and they stop them in many ways
Ibrahim Al Sarraji,
Head of journalists' rights group

According to the Iraqi Association for the Protection of Journalists' Rights, there has been an increase in lawsuits against journalists.

Those who try to report on issues like corruption or security face particular pressure from the government, it says.

"The government does not want journalists to do their jobs and they stop them in many ways," says Ibrahim al-Sarraji, the head of the association.

"Only pro-government journalists are allowed access to certain events and only pro-government newspapers get commercial advertising, which makes it impossible for others to survive," Mr al-Sarraji says.

'Hostile attitude'

More complaints are coming from Iraq's independent regulatory communications commission, which was set up in 2004 to regulate broadcast media.

Its deputy head, Mazin Kadhim al-Haboubi, says that since 2007 the commission has existed only on paper.

"We have been stripped of our authority to issue broadcast licenses and do other work that we were set up to do. The fact that we exist helps the government image, but in reality we make no difference," Mr al-Haboubi said.

Last month, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and President Jalal Talabani announced that they agreed on a "need to end the hostile attitude of the media towards [the] political process in Iraq".

Many in Iraq find this statement deeply alarming.

For Iraqi journalists Iraq remains an extremely dangerous place, but now in addition to daily physical dangers many of them feel that they are also being censored.

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