In Iraqi Kurdistan, CPJ delegation highlights press freedom concerns

Arbil, Iraq, November 5, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists concluded a two-week fact-finding mission to Iraqi Kurdistan today by calling on Iraqi Kurdish leaders to investigate a spate of unsolved assaults on outspoken journalists, and by urging legislators to remove vague prohibitions from a press bill now before parliament.

CPJ met with dozens of journalists from the official and independent press in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah to assess the region’s press freedom climate. In Arbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney and CPJ Senior Program Coordinator Joel Campagna met with KRG officials and legislators, who were receptive to CPJ’s concerns.

The media in Iraq’s Kurdistan region are dominated by KRG President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the region’s main political parties. However, several outspoken independent and semi-independent newspapers—in addition to online news sites—have emerged over the last several years, providing critical coverage of local politics and government. The influential broadcast media are largely controlled by the two political parties.

While the margin to criticize is relatively wide in the independent press, journalists have expressed concern about a rising number of physical attacks on the press, the arbitrary detentions of reporters by security forces, and the use of the courts to harass journalists. Those targeted often harshly criticize local officials, discuss alleged high-level corruption, or write about the parties’ top leadership. Officials and journalists expressed concern about professional standards in the boisterous independent press and stressed the urgent need for more journalism training.

The CPJ delegation raised particular alarm about beatings and abductions carried out by men wearing military-style uniforms.

“These alarming attacks are a dangerous threat to press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan and, if they continue, threaten to undermine the important progress achieved by independent journalists here in recent years,” CPJ’s Mahoney said. “KRG officials should publicly condemn these reprehensible attacks and launch serious inquiries to bring the perpetrators to justice. The failure to do so would suggest that Iraqi Kurdish officials condone such attacks.”

In its meetings with KRG officials, CPJ also expressed concern about politicized legal actions against outspoken journalists. In Iraqi Kurdistan, like the rest of Iraq, defamation is a criminal offense and is prosecuted under the harsh Baath-era penal code, which provides for imprisonment. Although no journalists are currently in prison in the KRG areas, Kurdish-Austrian writer Kamal Sayed Qadir, also known as Kamal Karim, was sentenced last year to 30 years in prison for defamation in articles he had published on Kurdistanpost criticizing the KDP and its leader Masoud Barzani, whom he accused of corruption and abuse of power. Qadir was eventually pardoned and released. Also in 2006, two journalists for the independent Hawlati newspaper were handed suspended jail terms for allegedly libeling a KRG official it accused of abuse of power. Several other criminal defamation lawsuits are currently in the courts against critical reporters.
The KRG parliament is discussing a new press bill, crafted with the support of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate. The 14-article draft, a version of which was reviewed by CPJ, appears to be minimally restrictive when compared with draconian media laws that prevail throughout the Middle East. The document, for example, does not provide for the detention and imprisonment of journalists.

However, Article 10 of the draft outlines a host of vague prohibitions—punishable by fines of between 1 and 2 million dinars (US$800 and 1,600)—against news that “disturbs security, spreads fear, or causes harm to people,” or that “encourages terrorism and sows hatred,” or that runs counter to “public morals.” Article 7 prescribes the same fines for newspapers that do not provide corrections for publishing “untrue information.” It is unclear who would decide what constitutes incorrect news; the provision is open to abuse in a climate where party officials frequently condemn newspapers for what they publish. Given the tenuous financial situation of independent papers—several operate at losses or barely break even—the elastic language of articles 7 and 10 could be exploited by pro-party judges to put critical newspapers out of business.

“This restrictive language has no place in this law. It is incompatible with the kind of democratic society which Kurdish officials have publicly embraced,” CPJ’s Campagna said. “We urge KRG officials and parliamentarians to ensure that legislation governing the media is compatible with international standards. That entails doing away with needlessly restrictive prohibitions in the press law and other laws that defy international standards. By making the necessary amendments, the KRG can help set a model for the rest of Iraq and the region.”

In meetings with KRG officials, CPJ outlined recent assaults on outspoken journalists that have gone unsolved by KRG authorities. They include:

Nasseh Abdel Raheem Rashid, Kurdistanpost: On October 7, four armed men abducted and assaulted Rashid, a Halabja-based journalist who writes for the expatriate online news site Kurdistanpost and for the local student paper Liberal Education, Rashid told CPJ. Rashid had been walking in Halabja’s central market in the evening when four armed men dressed in military uniforms accosted him and forced him into a waiting Nissan pickup. The men placed a sack over his head, handcuffed him, tied his legs with a scarf and drove him around for two hours before stopping in a remote area, the journalist said. There, the men began to punch, kick, and threaten Rashid, the journalist said. At one point, Rashid said, the men cocked their rifles and said they would kill him if he continued his work. The assailants left him at the scene with a warning not to tell anyone of the incident. Rashid reported the attack to local security in Halabja, but no suspects have been apprehended. In his writings for Kurdistanpost, Rashid frequently criticizes Kurdish authorities and the practices of the Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish. In June, the journalist was questioned by security forces and later charged with defamation by a group of former PUK and KDP fighters, who said the journalist had defamed them in an online article criticizing the KDP and PUK over their performance in governing Iraqi Kurdistan.

Aso Jamal Mukhtar, Education TV, Chaw TV: On the evening of May 5, Mukhtar, a former employee of the education ministry’s Education TV and now a camera technician for the soon-to-be-launched Chaw TV, was assaulted by three masked men as he left Education TV’s office in downtown Sulaymaniyah, the journalist said. The men—two wielding sticks and the third a pistol—blocked the path of Mukhtar’s car with their dark gray Mazda in an alley near Education TV’s office. They pulled the journalist out of the vehicle and began beating him with the sticks, said Mukhtar, adding that he eventually managed to flee. PUK officials have frequently complained to Mukhtar about the news Web site Kurdistanpost, which is run by Mukhtar’s brother in Sweden. The Web site often publishes critical news and incendiary commentaries about Kurdish officials. PUK officials have also accused Mukhtar of providing the Web site with news and information, the journalist said.

Nabaz Goren, Hawlati, Awene, Livin: On the evening of March 19, five armed men wearing military-style uniforms bundled Goren into a waiting pickup as he left the Writers Union Club in downtown Arbil. Goren, a writer who contributes articles to several independent Iraqi Kurdish newspapers including the weeklies Hawlati and Awene, was blindfolded and driven to a remote area about a half hour’s drive from the city, the journalist told CPJ. The men removed Goren from the car and began beating him with a metal rod and rifle butts while warning him to stop writing. Local security officials informed him the next day that an investigation was under way, but no one has been apprehended. Prior to the attack, Goren had harshly accused Iraqi Kurdish leaders of mismanagement in several articles and had been involved in a personal dispute with a KDP media official, he said.

CPJ will publish a complete report on its mission findings in early 2008.