BAGHDAD – The government wants to require foreign and Iraqi journalists to sign a code of conduct in exchange for permission to attend this month's provincial elections, raising concerns among media analysts that independent coverage could be undermined.
Iraqi authorities said the goal is to ensure fair coverage and to prevent the distortion of facts in a politically charged environment.
Parts of the 14-page code require that reports be balanced and unbiased and prohibit media from falsifying or misrepresenting information. The code also bans coverage of candidates and political campaigns for two days before the Jan. 31 vote. Punishment for violation ranges from warnings to thousands of dollars in fines.
The rules were drafted by a government commission that oversees domestic broadcasters at the request of the independent Iraqi High Electoral Commission.
Journalists must agree to them in order to get credentials to attend election events, including press conferences and polling stations.
Critics fear the code could hamper the ability of independent journalists to provide coverage of the vote, the first in three years in Iraq, which is expected to redistribute power among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.
"You can see that there are some good intentions here. The code tips its hat to fair coverage," said Ellen Hume, a Boston-based media analyst. "But ... once you start to define responsibility of journalists, you can get into big trouble."
Representatives from the Iraqi Journalists' Union planned to meet with electoral officials next week to discuss forming a joint committee to study any case that arises.
"We as a union consider any regulations that limit the work of journalists as a restriction, although we understand the electoral commission is trying to encourage the reporters to provide fair and objective coverage," said union head Mouyyad al-Lami.
The Associated Press is among news organizations still studying the document.
Commenting on the code, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said: "Goverments around the world are constantly exhorting broadcast media to provide responsible and balanced coverage. ... But in reality it's a thinly veiled attempt to control the news."
The demand for a code reflects nervousness of Iraqi officials about the fragility of recent security gains and the potential for efforts to incite violence or inflame tensions between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other groups.
Most Iraq's political parties operate their own newspapers and television stations, so any move against reporters could be interpreted as a crackdown on a party. That could add to political tensions.
A foreign official working with the electoral commission said foreign advisers have been trying to persuade the Iraqi panel to drop any mandatory code. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid disrupting the negotiations over the issue.
This month's vote will be the first nationwide election fully controlled by the Iraqis since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Hume acknowledged that sections of the code were aimed at defining fair journalistic practice but said that journalists should not have to sign it.
"A much better approach is a voluntary code of ethics, which declares that everyone is trying to be free and fair," she said.
Electoral officials said the heads of polling stations around the country would be able to confiscate credentials of journalists accused of violating the code. The case would then be reported to the Iraqi High Electoral Commission the next day and must be defended, according to commission chief Faraj al-Haidari.