For a half-century, Iraq has been among the world’s most difficult places to be a journalist. Saddam Hussein tolerated no independent journalism; to be a journalist was to be in the service of the state, and the state was Saddam. Any deviation was cause for imprisonment, torture, or death.
The 2003 U.S.-led invasion ended Saddam’s rule and took the lead off the pressure-cooker. Both Iran and the United States sponsored media outlets, and Iraqis at the local, provincial, and national level founded newspapers, radio stations, and satellite channels. These often served specific agendas: Some were neo-Baathist; others served political parties, and still others were essentially vanity projects. The quality of Iraqi journalism was uneven. Many stories were more rumors than facts. Libel and conspiracy ran rampant. Stories became mechanisms of political warfare.
There nevertheless grew an impressive array of younger journalists committed to the truth and willing to put their lives on the line for it. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani essentially modeled himself after Saddam, even if his entourage would take umbrage at such comparisons. In 2005, for example, his security forces beat and imprisoned Kamal Said Qadir, an Austrian-Kurdish writer. Three years later, Barzani’s eldest son Masrour and a bodyguard allegedly attempted to kill Qadir in Vienna. Two years later, the Barzanis killed Sardasht Osman, a university student, and journalist, after he wrote a poem lampooning Barzani nepotism. This past year, Masrour arrested journalists and charged them with treason for the crime of visiting the American consulate. The irony here, of course, is that Masrour had earlier begged American diplomats and Central Intelligence Agency officials for American citizenship.
Indeed, it was an irony of Iraq that while Iraqi Kurdistan depicted itself as a safe, secure, and even democratic region, the press was much freer in non-Kurdish-controlled portions of Iraq. Freer did not mean safer, however, as many journalists died at the hands of insurgents, terrorists, and violence. Among the greatest offenders of press freedom was Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric known for both shifting loyalties and mercurial temper.
In recent years, violence directed toward Iraqi journalists has become more acute. When the protest movement erupted in 2019, Iranian-backed militias seeking to prop up the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi targeted journalists both chronicling corruption and abuse of power or reporting on the protest movement challenging the government narrative. Nor were the only targets Iraqis. Militias attacked the Baghdad bureau of Saudi television, and government bodies sought to suspend Reuters over coverage of the Iraqi government’s botched response to COVID-19.
There was a broad reason for optimism, at least in the West, when Mustafa al-Kadhimi became interim prime minister. Al-Kadhimi was liberal and, prior to becoming head of the Iraqi intelligence service, was both a human rights researcher and a journalist. Between 2013 and 2016, he both wrote for the online portal Al-Monitor and edited its “Iraq Pulse” page.
Kadhimi, however, had not been as friendly to the press as many journalists had hoped. He and his team have both tried to constrain foreign journalists with permitting and protection requirements, and have sought to co-opt journalists and publications. Al-Monitor, for example, has repeatedly published Ali Mamouri without identifying him as a strategic communications advisor in the prime minister’s office, a position Iraqis in Baghdad says he holds. This co-option matters when discussing topics such as al-Sadr and the permanence of his current anti-Iran posture.
More recently, Hassan Ali Ahmed—Mamouri’s son and also reportedly Kadhimi’s nephew—has published in Al-Monitor, without acknowledging his relationship to the prime minister. In effect, rather than defend the principles of independent journalism, Kadhimi’s team appears to be promoting the sort of court journalism common elsewhere in the Middle East. Such trends are unhealthy for both politics and transparency.
It is understandable Kadhimi’s office might want to whitewash Sadr to a Western audience as the prime minister increasingly depends on Sadr’s endorsement to retain the premiership. Sadr may position himself as an anti-corruption activist, his past corruption notwithstanding, but he has neither wavered nor apologized for his past abuse of journalists. Neither have the Barzanis, whose support Kadhimi also actively courts.
Kadhimi might be a liberal. He also might be the best man for the job. Still, it is unfortunate that he appears to sacrifice reform and press freedom for power. Any second term under such circumstances would be Pyrrhic.
Certainly, neither critic nor supporter can deny that Kadhimi faces real danger; he has already survived multiple assassination attempts. Both Islamic State remnants and many Iran-backed militias mean him harm. This only reinforces the bubble in which he exists. Absent a free press, intent on co-opting other outlets and increasingly reliant on a close circle of aides and analysts prone to reflecting Kadhimi or trading praise for access, it will be near impossible for Kadhimi to assess the effectiveness of the policies he directs or the reality most Iraqis experience. The question under such circumstances is not whether Kadhimi can succeed—he will not—but rather what the cost of failure might be. Iraq needs a free press now more than ever.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and co-editor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).