On April 19th, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission (CMC) announced that it would lift the temporary suspension of Reuters’ license to work in the country. The action comes after Iraq suspended Reuters on April 14th after it published an article reporting a higher number of COVID-19 cases in Iraq than the government had officially released. In the article published on April 2nd, Reuters cited three doctors, a health ministry official, and a senior political official as claiming that Iraq had thousands of cases, whereas the government had reported the country only had 772 cases at the time. The CMC justified their position by indicating that the Reuters article violated the Commission’s rules of media broadcasting. In addition to the suspension of Reuters for three months, the Commission also fined Reuters 25 million dinars (21,000 USD) and asked for an official apology.
According to CNN, Iraqi President Barham Salih admitted that Iraqi officials were distressed by the Reuters article since it “implied a deliberate falsification of records by the government.” President Salih defended Iraq’s government, citing the World Health Organization and the United Nations in “confirming that there has been absolutely no evidence of deliberate falsification of records.” However, President Salih ultimately called the decision regrettable and immediately began working with his legal team to reinstate the news agency. Only five days later, Iraq reinstated Reuters’ license to continue working in the country.
The CMC, an organization that is independent of the Iraqi government, explained in a statement that it had suspended Reuters “because this matter is taking place during current circumstances which have serious repercussions on societal health and safety.” The CMC went on to say that Reuters’ “approach to the Iraqi situation places the security of society at risk.” President Salih was quick to express his disappointment: “From my vantage point you would not get me in a situation where I would defend [suspending Reuters]. I’m working with our legal team in order to revoke that and manage the situation.” Reuters released a statement soon after: “We are seeking to resolve the matter and are working to ensure we continue to deliver trusted news about Iraq.” After lifting the ban, the CMC explained that it reinstated Reuters “to allow transparent and impartial work by the media […] in adherence to operating according to the regulations of media broadcasting rules.” Reuters expressed that it was “very pleased the suspension has been lifted and we can continue to report from Iraq […] We appreciate the efforts made by the Iraqi authorities and the CMC to promptly resolve the matter.”
According to a UNESCO article dated April 13th, 2020, numerous governments around the world have systematically underreported coronavirus cases. However, rather than quashing Reuters’ reporting, President Salih seemed to stand by Iraq’s most current constitution which, in Article 38, explicitly protects freedom of expression: “The State shall guarantee in a way that does not violate public order and morality: First. Freedom of expression using all means. Second. Freedom of press, printing, advertisement, media and publication. Third. Freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and this shall be regulated by law.”
Despite this constitutionally guaranteed freedom, there have been serious issues with respect to the freedom of information in Iraq, according to Amnesty International. On July 19th, 2018, Iraqi security forces attacked a group of protesters. However, before beginning the attack, Amnesty International reported that Iraqi forces had shut off Internet access. Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “Deliberately disabling the internet is a sinister restriction to the right to freedom of expression and strongly indicates that the authorities have something to hide. We fear this blackout is deliberately designed to give carte blanche to the security forces to repress peaceful activists without being recorded and held accountable.”
This follows a prior admonition from Amnesty International on March 1st, 2019, stating that the Iraqi government has severely restricted access to the Internet and to social media in response to ongoing violence from recent elections. In May 2018, Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his coalition of parties won in Iraq’s parliamentary elections. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, this victory raised concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq, particularly since Iran is majority Shi’ite. In October 2018, Salih was elected as President, appointing Adel Abdul Mahdi as his Prime Minister. Mahdi’s government was met with widespread, violent protests across the country. In early 2019, Iraq’s government drafted a cybercrime law, effectively outlawing any speech that could “[harm] the reputation of the country.”
With respect to COVID-19, President Salih seemed to stand by Iraq’s constitution in protecting the freedom of the media. Amnesty International highlights several issues related to the political environment in Iraq. With freedom of the press upheld, citizens have less reason to believe that their government may be hiding information or the truth from them. In addition, it is generally acknowledged that freedom of the press can lead to decreased corruption, since the press checks and balances against government activity. While the episode seems like a minor mishap, one could view President Salih’s reinstatement of Reuters as being a step in the right direction for freedom of the press in Iraq. That said, it is unlikely that the Iraqi government would get a passing grade on this matter on the whole from Amnesty International.