Luay Al Khateeb, Foreign Policy Nonresident Fellow, Brookings Doha Centre (Twitter: @AL_Khatteeb)
Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, FPI-SAIS, Johns Hopkins University (Twitter: @DrAbbasKadhim)
Iraq has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists since its liberation in 2003. Many journalists lost their lives as they pursued their noble profession that often placed them in harm's way every time their reporting caused some discomfort for a political or militant group. We must state upfront that freedom of expression must be protected in Iraq and that all kinds of threats to journalists are condemned. The government of Iraq must take serious action against any armed groups or entities that pose threat to journalists.
We must also call on journalists to put professionalism ahead of other considerations and practice their job without transgressing against the truth or trespassing on any groups or entities. As the freedom of journalism is sacred in democratic countries, so is accountable reporting that is based on substantiated research and free of empty rhetoric, biased analysis, and hostility toward any group or party.
The recent departure of Ned Parker, the Baghdad bureau chief of Reuters, is a case in point. Reuters announced that Parker "left Iraq after he was threatened on Facebook and denounced by a Shi'ite paramilitary group's satellite news channel, Al Ahad TV, in reaction to a Reuters report last week that detailed lynching and looting in the city of Tikrit." While no threat should be taken lightly, it is hard to say that what the satirical talk show host said was a threat to Mr. Parker or the agency. From reviewing the segment in question, it appears clearly that the host, Wajih Abbas, was reading a published request that the Iraqi government expel Mr. Parker because "he writes articles for the Western public opinion defaming the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)." He then reads verbatim a letter he received about Reuters from an Iraqi living in the U.S. without any comments enticing violence against the agency or its bureau chief. In an interview with him, Mr. Abbas told the authors that he did not threaten anyone: "All I did was reading a letter sent to me saying Mr. Parker equates Da'ish (ISIS) with the Hashd (PMU), and asked that the government should not accept this and should expel him, which is our right," Mr. Abbas said. We did not have access to the Facebook threat which Reuters cited in its article; we tried to contact Mr. Parker to discuss the nature of the Facebook threat, but we couldn't get an answer. Later on, Parker was interviewed by NPR to explain why he had to flee Iraq, except this time his statement alluded to blaming Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi's recent speech prior leaving to Washington DC, as well as highlighting the accusation on Al Ahad TV for mobilizing a campaign against him and Reuters. Nonetheless, the Iraqi government was very responsive to the alleged threat on Mr. Parker by enforcing further security to Reuters fortified compound while investigating the case. After careful review and examination of PM Abadi's segment as well as the one of Al Ahad TV, we found no evidence of any threat.
While we affirm the right of Mr. Parker to do what he thinks is best for ensuring his safety, we argue that this matter could be handled in a better fashion. PM Abadi has already put freedom of the press high in his agenda and always welcomed journalists while he considered them as his eyes on the ground. Leaving Baghdad with a major headline behind will undoubtedly risk the lives of much needed journalists, foreigners as well as Iraqis. Those who know Iraq well realize that such headline is God's sent gift to Bathists and pro ISIS as it put the future of free journalism in Iraq at stake. Bathists will undoubtedly work to hunt down journalists in an effort to have all PMU (Hashd) accused - a local power, without it, Baghdad could have been the capital of ISIS since June 2014. The PMU, a local power that was praised by the Iraqi Government, the UN, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and the international community, while many journalists continue to label as "Iranian Backed" forces; a nationalistic power that has given thousands of casualties since the onslaught of ISIS without even earning salaries.
It is not a secret that Iran provides military support to Iraq, as much as the US does, while being more responsive to counter the terror threat of ISIS. But it is an absolute fiction to accuse all Shia armed groups as Iranian backed, when Hashed, although Shia majority forces, is diverse enough to include Sunni tribes, Christians, Yazidis, Arab and Turkmen - a local force that continues to welcome volunteers that fight ISIS, while regulated by the Iraqi Government. Iran is a country that shares over 1400km of borders, thousands of years of common history and cultures, 40% of Iraq's water supplies to Tigris, to list a few of a long list of reasons why Iraq and Iran should enjoy a healthy relationship as opposed to the preferences of war mongers who dare to label most Iraqi Shia as Iranians without knowing much about the socio-political orientation of the Iraqi Shia. Unlike the US that shares little with Iraq, yet played instrumental role in ending 23 years tyranny and backs the rebuilding of Iraq and its Army; so is Iran, that happens to be on track to salvage its relationship with the U.S., and possibly to become again a regional ally to Washington once the sanctions are over.
We know that our views are not within the spectrum of the conventional wisdom of Iraq analysts. Since our article on Grand Ayatollah Sistani's Fatwa, explaining its meaning as an instrument used by the highest religious authority in Iraq (Marji'ya) to call upon Iraqis to defend Iraq, the camp that described it as an Iranian backed fatwa to mobilize Shia against Sunnis has aggressively labeled us pro-Iran. Twitter is full of trolls dressed up as "experts" who cherry pick tweets of established specialists in their field to attack, while shallow journalists and bad researchers tend to use their rhetoric as basis for their write-ups. The most alarming part of this, is that some policy makers and politicians use such "intellectual" contributions as key to inform foreign policy and national security. This is catastrophic.
Iraq is facing the unconventional threat of a transnational terrorist group, supported and financed by many regional players, while the country still suffers the interfering hands from many foreign powers that opted to use Iraq as a battlefield to settle scores and differences. Yet, international media continue to judge Iraq's nascent democracy as if it is already established, and expect more speedy recovery and prosperity in a few years after a half century of military dictatorship, mostly ruled by Ba'ath tyranny. All this said, journalists as well as many foreign policy analysts tend to ignore the historical dimension, that impacted current democracies post past conflict, as what's really needed to help Iraq to recover, while painting a daunting future for a country that was just resurrected from the ashes of the past.
Freedom-wise, although Iraq's democracy is at its infancy, and way behind western democracies, yet it is miles ahead of most countries in the Middle East.