Female Journalists from Iraq: Women are not allowed to report on politics

Female Journalists from Iraq: Women are not allowed to report on politics

Female Journalists from Iraq: Women are not allowed to report on politics

Many media houses in Iraq are owned by politicians while the authorities try to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, two journalists and activists from this country said in an interview with Mediacentar Sarajevo. It is particularly difficult for female journalists to perform their job due to discrimination that is embedded in the Constitution, but also because of the way this society perceives woman.

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed, a journalist and researcher whose work is based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Dhikra Sarsam, an engineer, painter, activist for human and women rights and advocate for freedom of expression, spoke about their experiences, difficulties, threats and dangers they face in the interview for Media.ba.

At the end of June they visited Sarajevo with other nine colleagues from Syria and Iraq to participate the workshop „Transitional justice and reporting“ , organized by BH Journalists Association with the support of the Danish organization International Media Support (IMS). This was a unique opportunity to ask the participants and find out more on the state of media freedom, female journalists rights, freedom of access to information and respect of human rights in this region. For Media.ba they spoke about media reporting on the armed conflict in Iraq.

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed has been writing for several print outlets in her journalist career, including Howlati newspaper and Awena weekly. She was also the Director at Democratic and Human Rights Development Center as well as the UN Women National Programme Coordinator for the Kurdistan Region.

Dhikra Sarsam is currently the Deputy Director at Tower of Babel For Media Development based in Baghdad. Previously, she was the Director of TV production at the Almada group, working on interviews and documentaries dedicated to the pioneers of art.  She also worked for the USAID but she left this job after her female colleague with US origin, Fern Holland, was kidnapped and murdered, and the perpetrator was never found.

How would you describe freedom of expression now and before the fall of the regime? What changed?

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed: Since 2003 there were many media houses, including televisions, radios and newspapers but most of them were and still are owned by political parties. From 2003 until 2006 I volunteered with my colleagues for Hawlati newspaper (Kurdish for "citizen"), which was the most active and fearless media at the time, based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. We did not have all the neccessary technology for recording audio and video thus we did not manage to keep much documentation of our work. There was only one recorder in the redaction. The access to information in this period depended on yourself as a journalist, on how you manage to get to information. We had to struggle to find information through alternate ways. It is still very hard to get formal information through applying to authorities. Most of the times you are not able get what you are asking for, especially if you are looking for political information. You must have and use your relationship with the people, which is the main method to acquire the needed information. In this period from 2003, through a local NGO called Democracy and Human Rights Development Centre and under the project of Legal Protection Centre for Journalists, in cooperation with the Parliament Research Center, we managed to create the draft of the Law on access to information which was finally adopted in 2014, but only in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Unfortunately, the problem is still the application of this law in practice since many journalists as well as employees of the institutions, do not know about the law. There is no such law for the rest of Iraq. Journalists in 2016 attempted to work on it.

Dhikra Sarsam: Before 2003 we did not even have the term freedom of expression and we were isolated. The satellites were not allowed and the internet access was very limited. There were only few offices ran by the governement where you could access internet, but with the supervision. I did not know how to use internet or the computer untill 2003. After the fall of regime, the freedom of expression was included in the Article 38 of the new Constitution. Still, the Government tries to put the limitations. For example, they submitted a draft of the Law on Freedom of Assemly when the demonstrations against corruption emerged in 2011. The draft predicted that demonstrators should submit the request for gathering two weeks earlier and submit the list of participants, number of demonstrators etc. We stood against this draft but it was being supported by MPs who are part of the prime minister political group. We succeeded to stop the passing of the draft for three times, last time last year. Another strange thing is the confict between two media companies within the country because their owners are opposed politicians. We have a Parliament Member who is owner of a media outlet. Some media are also owned by political parties. The independent media such as small radio stations sometimes can not afford to pay for the licences, while the media owned by political parties and politicians still keep working.

What changed in regards to Iraqi journalists work since the start of the armed conflict in 2014 and the problem with the Islamic State?

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured many Yazidi women and girls, raped most of them girls and killed the men and boys. There is still a problem with this: many girls are still kept by ISIS. Some of them got pregnant and many of them committed a suicide. We never found out how many women they kidnapped or how many died. There are some information provided by UNHCR, or the government of Iraq, but the exact number is unknown. Since 2014 many journalists were killed as well because they did not know how to protect themselves in war circumstances. Some journalists made it easy for ISIS to find them because they were streaming very sensitive information most of the time. Access to information did not work at that time. The government itself did not know much about the problem at the very beginning.

How would you describe the current accessibility to information in Iraq, is it the same for both male and female journalists?

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed: Access to political information is difficult for both male and female journalists. Sometimes it depends on the public sector employee when you are asking for information. It also depends on journalists and their relations with people they are asking information from.

Dhikra Sarsam: There is a lack of transparency in Iraq in general. Journalists have no access to information about spending of public budgets and that is a major problem. Some political parties spend millions of dollars for media campaigns and no one knows where do they get the money from. That is why we are trying to push for this law. But even if the law is adopted, I am skeptical whether government and politicians will allow journalists to know what is going on in institutions. Access to information for Iraqi journalists depends on their personal relations and skills neccessary to get information. There is also a lack of trust in journalists by government and army because sometimes even journaliasts are not professional, they write things in a different way, selecting parts of some speech and ignoring other parts. That is why some institutions try to avoid media.

How do you see status of women in general and the status of female journalists in Iraq? Did you or your colleagues have situations of being intimidated, discriminated or limited in freedom of speech?

Dhikra Sarsam: There is discrimination of women in general even in the legislation of Iraq. We are trying to work on this and modify the laws, where we find discrimination. At the same time there are some religious limitations, because when a new law is submitted it should be harmonized with Sharia which is integrated in the Constitution. The discrimination is related to Sharia and the religion. When female journalits criticize something on social media they are attacked more than man. Some of my colleagues, women that wanted to work as journalists, specially in local media outlets, told me they faced some harassment and employers tried to use them since they were in need for a job. Sometimes female journalists have to obey the owner. Being a women covering the war is not easy because she has to be surrounded by soldiers. All the journalists that cover the war they have to go with the army and stay there for several days and it is not easy for a women. But nevertheless some women report about the war. I knew one who was killed last year during reporting in Mosul. She was one of our colleagues and she used to cover our activities as well.

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed: I had a problem at the beginning of my career, when I worked for Hawlati newspaper on my first article. A women organization within the PUK political party filed a defamation lawsuit against me for writing about how they deal with women who have a problem in the community, such as domestic violence. This party was giving astrology advices through their radio program, instead of providing a psychologist therapy or social worker services. When I received the lawsuit nobody stood on my side, not even my editorial staff at Hawlati which published my article or any other organization. Nobody came with me at the court. Since I had good relations with some international journalists working in my region, I told them to come with me to the court to have at least some support, since I was a student and I could not afford a lawyer. I made a campaign for myself to get human rights organizations and international journalists to support me at court. I felt discriminated as a women by my newspaper because the same thing happened to my male colleague and he got all the support from the editorial staff! I was released because I was right in the article. Furthermore, the theft of articles was a common thing when I was a journalist, and it happened mostly to women. Another problem is that women are not allowed to cover political topics or sessions by the editorial staff in general. This includes interviews with politicians and making a report about politics. Women mostly write about domestic violence, culture etc. This problem is still present.

Another problem we noticed at the Legal Protection for Journalists Center is that when female journalists apply for free legal support, they ask to keep it anonymous because it would be a problem for a women since she would have to go to the police station or to the court which is, for some women, a personal shame and shame for her family, mostly because of the dominant culture influence.

Furthermore, the fear of female journalists in an armed conflict is double because of the gender component. It happened to me many times that articles are published without signing my name in the newspaper because some of the topics were sensitive and I was affraid to write my name.

What is the most important to be careful about as a female journalist in Iraq in order to protect yourself when performing professional duties?

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed: Being a female journalist you have to be very careful. If you write a critically oriented article about one of the political parties or about an entrepreneur, you risk they fit your identity into an adultery video and put it on the Internet using journalists name. The Legal Protection for Journalists Center registered many such cases. Female journalists sometimes are affraid to go to a professional assignment without male colleagues. Unfortunately, journalists in Iraq in general are not experienced for work and protection in war circumstances. Women are more affraid particularly of rape. The women journalists are not only affraid of the enemy, but some of the males around her. They are affraid of dying as well, but the biggest fear is rape.

How common is to have women in politics in Iraq?

Dhikra Sarsam: In 2004 we started a campaign to include quotas for women in the constitution. At that time, the Iraqi Women Network was founded and many organizations joined it. We started collecting signatures through the campaign for including the quotas in the law and many local and international organizations supported us. The petition was submitted to a committee which was established to write the new Constitution. We wanted to have 40 per cent of quota in parliament, but at the end we got only 25 per cent. This percentage was only for the Parliament and local councils but there were still no quotas for the executive authorities and institutions. You can not find a mayor or assistent of mayor being a women, neither on state level executive positions. But we are still trying to get the quotas in the executive authorities as well. At the time we advocated for the quota in parliament, some women groups of the religious parties were against it. But now they are in the parliament and they are strong.

Did any of your reports result with a reaction of the authority or did it influence a positive change in the society?

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed: It was for example a report I wrote about a woman raped and killed by one of the members of authorities. I wrote about how she did not die but she was murdered. Hawlati newspaper published this information and it caused the detention of the perpetrator. After my report, most of the organizations became aware of the problem of violence against women. In collaboration with other NGOs, I could influence the government to arrest the perpetrators or to amend the law of honor killing. Another example of my story making a positive change was at the time I published an article about suicides of women. The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Religion formed a committee to fight this problem.

How would you describe the way global media and agencies report on the conflict in Iraq, and how is it compared to local media reports?

Dhikra Sarsam: Compared to local media, reports of global media and agencies are much better. Local media lack professionalism in their reporting. For example, when I used to watch the liberation of Mosul day by day, Iraqi journalists used to report about all the military activities from the field. But when I wanted to see what is happening to people, families and civilians, I watched the BBC reports. Still, I think many things are missing in the reports of global media and agencies. They maybe have limited access to crisis areas, and there are also limitations from the authorities. Not every journalist can reach everywhere. I think that reports on the suffering of people are very limited. Each house has its own story, the displacement, missing of members of families etc. Local journalists have to be the ones who cover these issues and there is nothing about it. Even if they cover something like this, the reports are not professional and cannot make pressure or a change.

Sardasht Abdulrahman Majeed: Most of the reports are not very accurate. The minority groups are discriminated in the reports, such as the Kurdish Ezidi Minorities in Iraq. Their voices are not being loud enough in those reports. Some other minorities are not even mentioned in those reports.