(New York) - Iraqi authorities should immediately investigate a raid by security forces on the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO), a prominent Iraqi press freedom group, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called on the government to ensure the speedy and safe return of all seized equipment and documents.
At about 2 a.m. on February 23, 2011, more than 20 armed men, some of them wearing brown military uniforms and red berets, and others wearing black military uniforms with skull-and-cross-bones insignia on their helmets, pulled up in Humvees outside the group's office in Baghdad and broke in, a witness told Human Rights Watch. The security forces conducted a destructive search of the office that lasted more than an hour and seized the organization's computers, external hard drives, cameras, cell phones, CDs, documents, and several flak jackets and helmets marked "Press," the witness said.
"This raid on the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory shows the contempt of Iraqi authorities for groups that challenge the state's human rights record," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
A spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the men were part of the Iraqi army but gave few other details.
Ziyad al-Ajili, the group's executive director, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities "were obviously sending us a message to stop our work of supporting journalists.... This kind of governmental intimidation is precisely what we try to shed light on." In Iraqi television interviews over the days leading up to the raid, al-Ajili voiced support for the right of Iraqis to protest peacefully and the media's right to report on the protests.
Human Rights Watch visited the group's office the morning after the raid and saw extensive damage, including broken furniture, destroyed equipment, kicked-in doors, and ripped-up posters and literature for the organization's events, such as their annual "Press Courage Awards." Framed photographs of journalists killed in Iraq since 2003 were strewn on the floor, covered in broken glass.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that authorities would not return the computer hard drives and other electronic data storage devices seized from the group.
Al-Ajili said he fears that the authorities used the raid as a pretext to close the office, which serves as an informal gathering point for local journalists. In late January, the group held an awards ceremony in Baghdad, honoring investigative journalists who had uncovered corruption and other wrongdoing.
Although improvements in security since 2008 have reduced the assaults against media workers, journalists and press freedom advocates remain at risk in Iraq. On February 21, Human Rights Watch released a survey report, "At a Crossroads: Human Rights in Iraq Eight Years After the US-led Invasion," which documents attacks against media and press restrictions. The report calls on the government to protect the rights of journalists and to amend its penal code and other laws that violate freedom of speech.