Iraqi press freedom activists on Saturday decried the detention for more than 10 days of two journalists accused of stealing the notebook of the country’s defence minister following a meeting of political leaders.
Mohammed Fuad and Afdhal Jumaa are alleged to have stolen Saadun al-Dulaimi’s notepad after the June 1 meeting, which had been convened in order to ease tensions and break a long-standing deadlock that has paralysed lawmaking and contributed to a spike in violence.
The meeting was held in a large conference hall in Baghdad, with journalists in attendance for the duration of the talks.
The pair, who work for Iraqi news outlet ANB television, were arrested on June 4 and have been held in detention ever since. ANB television is owned by a member of the party led by Ayad Allawi, one of the principal opponents to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Defence ministry officials accuse them of wilfully stealing the notepad, but activists and family members insist they found the book after the meeting and handed it to an official who failed to return it.
“The camera in the hall was recording the symbolic meeting between the politicians, and it revealed the journalists stealing the notebook of Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi when one of the journalists hid it under his shirt,” said a defence ministry official on condition of anonymity.
“The investigation has made clear that the journalists committed a crime,” the official said. “Their file has been transferred to the judiciary because they took things belonging to a senior official in the country.”
It was not immediately clear what specific offence the pair had been charged with.
A family member of Fuad, who did not want to be named, told AFP that the pair had handed the notebook to an official who promised to hand it over to the minister, but failed to follow through.
The relative said Fuad and Jumaa’s homes were raided, and that the two were being held in a defence ministry detention centre.
“Detaining them is not right,” said Hassan Jumaa, head of a Baghdad-based centre dedicated to defending journalists against lawsuits. “The minister can complain, but keeping them in custody is not justified.”
The Journalism Freedom Observatory, a local press freedom group, also condemned their arrest.
“These measures are akin to those taken by a military dictatorship,” said JFO chief Ziad al-Ajili. “In fact, the minister of defence should be accused of negligence (for forgetting his notepad), and also because he is breaking constitutional rules by detaining journalists for more than 24 hours without an arrest warrant.”
Iraq regularly ranks towards the bottom of global press freedom rankings. It came in 150th out of 179 countries in media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index.