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Amid Iraq violence, journalists struggle about government control

Car-bomb attacks killed dozens in Iraq today, a reminder of the dangers that continue to lurk in the country. Local journalists are struggling with government restrictions on covering their country.

By Staff writer / June 13, 2012

People and security forces inspect the scene of a car bomb attack in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, on June 13.

Karim Kadim/AP

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Baghdad; and Istanbul, Turkey

A series of coordinated car bombs in Iraq targeted Shiite pilgrims today, killing at least 72 people in violence that recalled the worst years of Iraq's insurgency and sectarian civil war, which peaked in 2006-07.

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The killings were a reminder that Iraq remains a very dangerous place, though much improved. And just as the bright, prosperous future that many Iraqis dreamed of at the start of the US-led war in 2003 has yet to materialize, so too have many of the basic freedoms it was assumed would flow from regime change.

Iraqi journalists, in particular, are still struggling to report freely and safely about their nation, something that was brought home when Marwan Ibrahim, a longtime reporter for Agence France-Presse, was seriously injured in a roadside bomb attack in the northern city of Kirkuk this morning.

By one count, more than 340 journalists have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, and Iraq remains one of the most dangerous nations on earth to be a journalist, according to Freedom House.

Today death threats, targeted killings and bombed offices may no longer be as much a daily fact of life as they once were. But Iraqi journalists say that pressure and risks persist in other ways, under the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"The way of killing journalism, it continues. They are just changing the way of violence to legal violence, under the law," says Ziad al-Ajili, director of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, a free speech watchdog.

Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi has called media freedom a "threat to national security." And a new press law under consideration would impose tough penalties for spreading information "against the public interests," and limit access the Internet.

Freedom House lists Iraq as "not free," and in its 2011 report said the country "remained one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists," complicated by "increasing" restrictions and lawsuits.

"Al Qaeda killed journalists [before]," says Mr. Ajili. "But now the army and police, when they prevent you [from] going to news events or taking pictures or filming, and the government legislates laws to stop you getting information from their sources – so you are dead."

Ajili should know. He formed his group in 2004 with a string of observers across Iraq, who tabulated killings of journalists, one name at a time.

In an interview with the Monitor in 2006, Ajili said he slept with an AK-47 assault rifle beside him "like a soldier going out on a mission." Colleagues used to call him to reserve space on his website, which posted photographs and details of killed journalists. Even back then, journalism in Iraq was "going backwards," Ajili told the Monitor. When insurgents and militias saw the government shut out key Arabic-language television channels like al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera, they "think they have a right to kill journalists."

Concentrated power

These days the pressure comes as Mr. Maliki has been accused of centralizing power into his own hands, at the expense of coalition partners who have sought – so far unsuccessfully – to unseat him with a vote of no confidence in parliament.

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