April 12, 2010

Members of the Communication and Media Commission of Iraq:

I am writing to express Human Rights Watch's concerns about the broadcast media regulations promulgated earlier this year by the Communication and Media Commission (CMC).

The regulations created a broadcast licensing regime whose aim was to silence broadcasters who encourage sectarian violence. However, the regulations suffer from several drafting defects that could inhibit their effectiveness and inappropriately encroach on the freedoms of Iraq's broadcast media. In particular, the regulations impose inadequate licensing standards and underdeveloped content restrictions. Additionally, certain provisions pose a serious security threat to media workers. Human Rights Watch's review of the regulations finds that they fall short of international standards for freedom of expression and we urge you to suspend them until necessary amendments are made.

The licensing standards are inadequate. Though Human Rights Watch recognizes a government's right to regulate the public airwaves through broadcast licensing, the criteria governing the issuance of licenses should be clearly and completely stated, in advance, in the form of law or regulation, and should encourage outlet and content pluralism. The CMC's regulations neither give an exhaustive list of criteria for licensing approval nor do they include criteria designed to foster diversity. The regulations should be revised accordingly.

The provisions governing sanctions and appeals are inadequate. The regulations give the CMC the power to cancel licenses after certain first-time minor violations of the licensing terms. Sanctions directed at broadcast media outlets should be proportionate to the offense and should be graduated in response to the repetition and number of committed offenses. Cancellation of a license should only be allowed in the case of an egregious repeat offender or extremely serious offense. Additionally, the rules do not give license applicants a clear, public and expeditious path to appeal should their application be denied. Nor do the rules include definite timelines governing the CMC's obligations to respond during the application or appeals process. To ensure that the CMC cannot engage in secretive or dilatory decision-making, the regulations should be amended accordingly.

The content-based restrictions are underdeveloped, vague and susceptible to abuse. The regulations provide: "The [media] establishment should not broadcast any material that incites violence [or] sectarianism . . . ." The CMC should modify this content-based restriction to delineate more clearly the responsibilities of broadcasters. In particular, the meaning of "material that incites violence [or] sectarianism" should be described in greater detail. As written, the above restriction fails to provide meaningful guidance to broadcasters and fails to conform to international norms governing freedom of expression and the prohibition of "material that incites ... sectarianism" appears to be very broad and open to abuse and restrictions on freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch recognizes that under U.N. Resolution 1624 (among other authority), Iraq has a duty to punish speech that constitutes actual incitement to particular and imminent acts of sectarian or other violence. Human Rights Watch further recognizes that as part of this duty, it may be appropriate to disable the license of a media outlet that repeatedly offends its responsibility under international and domestic law to refrain from the incitement to particular and imminent violent acts. However, it is incumbent upon the CMC and all members of the Iraqi government to ensure that such a restriction is strictly defined and limited and does not lead to politically-motivated or otherwise inappropriate discrimination in the regulation and licensing of broadcasters. The duty to protect freedom of expression is mandated by the Iraqi constitution and by international law.  The rules should be modified to ensure consistency with these obligations. 

The requirement that broadcast organizations submit lists of their employees to the CMC represents an unacceptable security threat to media workers. Iraqi media personnel work in an extraordinarily unsafe environment. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counts the journalist death toll in Iraq at 141 since 2003. Of these, CPJ attributes at least 89 to murder. They CPJ has stated that in addition 43 media support personnel were also murdered during this period. By these counts Iraq has been the most dangerous place in the world for journalists in six of the past seven years. News reports and interviews with journalists indicate that some of these murders were politically motivated, and, indeed, the deceased journalists most often covered political and war stories. Journalists who wish to stay anonymous must be allowed to do so. The security risk posed by circulating lists of journalists is severe. The rules should be modified to eliminate this requirement.

Additionally, the new Iraqi parliament should take all feasible steps to stem acts of violence, intimidation and abuse aimed at muzzling members of the media who have written or broadcast information about governmental corruption or criticized government policies or officials. The CMC should ensure that its regulations do not give Iraqi officials the authority to silence voices that speak contrary to the will of the ruling government.  The CMC regulations were promulgated amid a general and ugly turn of tide for freedom of expression in Iraq. Over the months leading into the elections on March 7, the government clamped down on scrutiny of public officials, denied media accreditation to journalists, and used the country's broad libel laws to sue media outlets who publish well-sourced and well-intentioned criticisms of the government. In addition to being disaccredited or sued, many organizations had their access to governmental functions blocked. Disturbingly, during the January 2009 provincial elections, police and security forces harassed, arrested and assaulted numerous journalists. Some were detained for hours while others were beaten or had their equipment destroyed; others were prevented from entering polling stations. Though the CMC is ostensibly an independent body, many members of the media view the CMC regulations as an extension of the Iraqi government's attempts to exercise unwarranted control over the media. In order to facilitate an end to the violence and intimidation directed at the media, CMC regulations should be suspended until adequately amended.

With the election of a new parliament we hope that the Iraqi government will embrace freedom of expression and take full account of its responsibility as a new democracy. 

I thank you for your attention to this important matter and welcome your response.

Sincerely,

Joe Stork

Deputy Director

Middle East and North Africa division

Human Rights Watch

More reporting on: