Secret police prove Maliki's new "authoritarianism"

The use of so-called “insult laws” to censor legitimate criticism of a country’s leader is a tool of authoritarian regimes everywhere, and now, it seems Iraq too. On Tuesday Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was awarded damages of 100 million dinars ($85,000) in damages in a defamation case against Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

The paper had run a story describing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s administration as “increasingly autocratic” and quoted three unnamed Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) members as saying “elements of Maliki’s rule resembled a dictatorship”.

Almost as if to prove him right the court — meeting in closed session and without hearing any evidence from the Guardian — found in his favour. While the post Saddam-era constitution’s Article 38 guarantees freedom of speech, there are a rack of laws in the country’s largely unreformed Penal Code that prohibit insult on pain of jail.

In this case INIS — clearly embarrassed by the loose talk among their supposed “secret” policemen — were looking not to jail them, but to secure a public apology, the closure of the Guardian office in Baghdad, disclosure of the unnamed sources and $1m in damages for Maliki, even though Maliki’s spokesmen maintain that he is not behind the writ.

Direct appeals to Maliki’s office saw off the threat to close the Guardian’s Baghdad office, but the action, begun in May 2009, rolled on to its conclusion on 10 November. The paper is to appeal.

During the case, said the Guardian, they had not been given the opportunity to present any evidence or had even been asked to give a written statement to the court.

The court asked a panel of three prominent members of the country’s independent journalists’ union for their opinion. Their view was that the article, by the paper’s award-winning correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, was neither defamatory nor damaging.

The NCIS sought and got a second opinion from a group of five experts of their own. This group, including the host of a legal affairs show on state TV, Salah Najim al-Maliki, concluded the opposite in what the Guardian was told –– they were not allowed to see their report — was “very hostile and unfavourable” language.

The allegedly defamatory article was published on the day that the Iraqi PM arrived in London to meet potential UK investors in Iraq. Interestingly both sides argued that the supposed slight that Maliki suffered did not deserve payment of damages.

Dozens of media outlets have sprung up in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and Iraqi journalists enjoy considerable freedom compared to before and to other Middle Eastern countries. Nevertheless the tools to prohibit insult are still in the penal code toolbox if needed.

Countries with laws prohibiting insult of public officials keep them “to intimidate” opposition, says US-based World Press Freedom Committee chairman Richard N. Winfield in a recent report by the group. “Complete repeal is the only sensible remedy.”