President Barham Salih
Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi
Speaker of the Council of Representatives Muhammad al-Halbusi
Minister of Education Mohammad Iqbal Omar
We write on behalf of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America and its Committee on Academic Freedom to express our alarm at the official backlash professors and administrators of the College of Media at the University of Baghdad are facing as a result of publicizing cases of corruption by Iraqi members of parliament. We write to urge your government to desist from repressing academic freedom and freedom of expression for scholars in Iraq.
MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 2500 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.
Since the end of May 2019, the dean of the College of Media at the University of Baghdad and two members of the faculty who have been publicizing cases of corruption have received threats from a daily newspaper, online sources and anonymous telephone calls. Starting two months ago, Dr. Nabil Jassim, a professor at the College of Media who is also the editor of the Baghdad Today Agency, and his colleagues at the Agency published several documents on large-scale corruption, alleging money laundering carried out by a private bank and in coordination with government officials. On 26 May 2019, Dr. Jassim received several calls from a mobile phone clearly and directly threatening him and his family if he did not stop publishing documents related to a private bank’s involvement in corruption. The unknown callers told him that they knew where he lived.
Separately, Dr. Erada Zidan Al-Jubouri, the Assistant Dean of the same college, is facing a fierce electronic defamation campaign over a question she routinely includes in the written examination for a course she teaches on “media and digital education”. The question is framed as a media article dealing with accusations of corruption against Jamal al-Mhimidawi, an Iraqi Parliament Council Representative. Professor Al-Jubouri has explained that the topic of the exam question is strictly “academic” and was included as an exercise to train students to address the news in a professional manner, while evaluating students’ ability to analyse digital media. After the question was publicized in a newspaper article, Al-Mhimidawi launched a public campaign calling for the firing of Professor al-Jubouri.
In an apparent attempt to intimidate university administrators so that they would not defend their staff when harassed, a daily newspaper launched a defamation campaign against Dr. Hashim Hassan Al-Tamimi, the dean of the College of Media: on 23 May 2019, it published on its front page a headline alleging that he had “forged” his passport. It is worth noting that Dr. Al-Tamimi, in addition to being a prominent academic, has practiced journalism since 1974 and has written numerous articles demanding the end to rampant corruption by various Iraqi state officials.
These recent violations of academic freedom are particularly distressing, as threats to Iraqi academics have in some cases led to mob actions intended to silence dissent and other legitimate forms of social engagement. We are concerned for the safety of the two faculty members, as well as the dean of the College of Media at the University of Baghdad. We call on you to protect journalists and academics in general, and in particular those who are writing about corruption in the country. Specifically, we call on you to investigate the threats made against Dr. Nabil Jassim and Dr. Erada Al-Jubouri, as well as the smear campaign against Dr. Hashim Hassan Al-Tamimi, and to bring those responsible to justice.
We request that your government take immediate steps to commit itself publicly to the protection of academic freedom and to remind the media and members of parliament that respect for academic freedom also extends to the types of questions included in exams, and to non-interference in the university’s internal academic practices. Furthermore, we call on you to stand by any civil society actors uncovering cases of corruption, whether committed by private companies or state officials.
In light of mounting international condemnation of the erosion of constitutional rights and freedoms under your administration, taking steps to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression would be an important initiative in addressing pressing concerns about the quality of government in Iraq.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your positive response.
Judith E. Tucker
Professor, Georgetown University
Chair, Committee on Academic Freedom
Professor, University of Southern California