Al-sabah al jadeed’s caricature of Ayatollah Khamenei (Image RFE/RL)
Independent Iraqi daily newspaper Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed has survived numerous attempts to destroy it over its 10 year existence. But on 10 February, the newspaper’s Baghdad office was bombed and now its future is in doubt. The daily may need to find a new office, employees are fleeing, and its website is facing one DoS attack after another.
Windows, furniture and equipment were damaged when a bomb went in front of the building at 4.30 am. Later that morning another bomb exploded not far from the newspaper, while an unexploded heavy C4 plastic explosive device was found inside the premises and dismantled by police. No one was injured or killed, as the office was empty – but some neighbours are suggesting that the newspaper should move.
A few hours later that same day a militia-like group entered the building. “They came threatening us in broad daylight, so to speak,” says Ismael Zayer, editor in chief. The group escaped after employees managed to warn the police.
The bomb attacks followed a social media campaign to demand the closure of the newspaper after it published its weekly supplement Zad on 6 February. The supplement was devoted to the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and on the cover featured a caricature of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The cover caricature is a tradition for Zad, a supplement that came into existence in the first months of the Arab Spring. Ahmed al-Rubaie, the newspaper’s cartoonist, has drawn hundreds of caricatures of political and religious figures, from Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, Najaf’s grand ayatollah Al-Sistani and prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to Nelson Mandela and other internationally known figures. These cartoons are never intended to be offensive or convey a negative message, they are just an alternative to uninteresting photos of VIPs.
Zayer believes the caricature of Khamenei is just a pretext to attack the newspaper and have it closed before the parliamentary elections planned for this spring. But there may be yet more reasons for the attacks and threats against the newspaper. Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed recently covered a damning report by Human Rights Watch on the abuse of female detainees in Iraqi prisons. HRW accused the government of illegally detaining wives and daughters of (Sunni) suspects who are on the run, claiming detainees were sexually abused. Zayer wrote an open letter to the government, demanding that the Minister of Justice, Hassan al-Shimmari, be sacked. “I am ashamed of my country,” he commented, “What are we? A whorehouse?”
After some efforts to convince the Ministry of Interior to protect the newspaper and its staff, the office of the newspaper is now under permanent surveillance by the police, but it is unclear for how long. Zayer has left the country temporarily after receiving death threats. This is not the first time the editor has been forced to flee Baghdad.
In the beginning of 2006 when Iraq’s sectarian conflict led to thousands of assassinations a month, Zayer managed the newspaper from a small office in Amman, Jordan. He planned to create an international edition for the millions of Iraqi refugees outside their home country – a project that was almost ready to be launched when on 30 December, Saddam Hussein was hanged in a way that scandalised his Jordanian supporters and made the company that was going to produce the international edition wary of printing a newspaper critical of Ba’athists.
Zayer decided to open a second bureau in Erbil, the relatively safe capital of the autonomous Kurdish Region, and to bring back around a dozen journalists that had escaped to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The bureau was maintained until the very end of 2009, when Zayer and most of his staff went back to Baghdad.
The newspaper has faced many other challenges. In May 2004, Zayer’s driver and bodyguard were killed during an attempt by fake police to kidnap the editor in chief. Later, one of Zayer’s brothers was kidnapped for a hefty ransom. More than once ministers ordered an advertising boycott – a large part of the advertising in the newspaper concerns government tenders, next to a steady stream of ads by mobile phone companies and real estate firms. Nowadays, a strange rule is in force that says tender ads can only be paid once the tender has been decided – as a result, the newspaper is sitting on hundreds of unpaid bills.
From 2006 until 2008, when Nouri al-Maliki, after having been under siege in Basra himself, finally decided to defeat the Shi’ite militias in the south and the capital, distribution of the newspaper was often prohibited in many cities and Baghdadi neighbourhoods. Distribution north of the capital was completely disrupted during the American siege of Fallujah at the end of 2004 – and for a long time thereafter. The Borsa in Baghdad, a building from where for years, several independent and party newspapers were sold to traders every morning, was occupied for months by Ba’athists. Sometimes printing houses ran out of paper after trucks were stolen on the road from Amman to Baghdad and their drivers killed.
By attempting to create a modern, democratic trade union for journalists, Zayer, who was elected its first president, ran into serious trouble with the old union, one of the many Ba’athist institutions the US occupation’s administration had left intact.
The newspaper has survived several libel cases brought on by various politicians demanding potentially ruinous compensation sums, owing its victories to courageous independent judges. It has survived vicious campaigns on the internet claiming it is in “American-Zionist” hands. Recently it survived the flooding of large parts of Baghdad, as a result of bad maintenance of the sewage system and torrential rain.
Iraqi readers have shown their support for the newspaper after the bomb attack. This February is not the first time there is no Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed in the streets – but this time, as those responsible for the bomb attack didn’t leave a business card, with whom should the newspaper negotiate? Removing the supplement from the website hasn’t helped to assuage the anger about the innocent caricature of Khamenei. In the past the newspaper could hang on thanks to financial help from donors, as well as political support from Iraqi ministers and top officials who think independent media are at least a necessary evil. It certainly needs solidarity now.