Kurdish parliament approves restrictive press bill

New York, December 13, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about a restrictive new press bill approved on Tuesday by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG’s) parliament.

The bill, which awaits approval of the KRG President Masoud Barzani before becoming law, has yet to be made public; however Tuesday’s parliamentary session was broadcast live on local Kurdish television.

Journalists who viewed the parliamentary session and later spoke with lawmakers told CPJ that the new bill significantly increases financial penalties from a draft version of the law that had been on the table in recent months, and imposes other new restrictions. The new law stipulates fines of up to around 10 million Iraqi dinars (US$8,200) for journalists found guilty of a number of vague offenses such disturbing security, spreading fear, or encouraging terrorism. (Some news reports said that fines could reach 20 million Iraqi dinars for newspapers.)

The older version of the bill prescribed fines of between 1 and 2 million dinars (US$800 and $1,600) for similarly vague offenses.

Iraqi Kurdish journalists also told CPJ that the new bill contained other restrictive provisions not contained in the previous draft, including amendments that would allow the government to suspend newspapers and a requirement that editors in chief be members of the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate (KJS). Journalists also said the law would allow members of the press to be tried for criminal offenses under other Iraqi laws that allow for imprisonment.

The reported provisions allowing newspaper suspensions, mandatory membership in the KJS, and the possibility of imprisonment for journalists are new and contradict the statements of several Kurdish officials and parliamentarians to CPJ about their desire to draft a progressive press law that differs from harsh media laws that predominate in the region.

“The secrecy surrounding this bill is deeply disturbing, and reports that Kurdish officials have taken steps to push through a significantly harsher bill raises further alarm,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Officials assured CPJ that the press law would not hinder the work of the media, but the new bill is even worse than the old one. President Barzani should not sign it.”
Kurdish lawmakers and KJS officials noted that details of the bill have yet to be made public and said that Barzani can still send the bill back to parliament for further discussion. KJS head Farhad Awni said he met with officials from Barzani’s office today to express his concern.

In meetings with KRG officials in Arbil in November, CPJ expressed concerns about the earlier draft of the bill with lower fines, noting that even those penalties could be used to economically debilitate newspapers. Given the tenuous financial and political situation of independent papers—several operate at losses or barely break even—the bill’s elastic language could be exploited by pro-government judges to put critical newspapers out of business.

The media in Iraq’s Kurdistan region are dominated by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, 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.

While the margin to criticize is relatively wide in the independent press, a CPJ mission to Arbil in Sulaymaniyah  in October and November found a rising number of physical attacks on the press, 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. The CPJ delegation raised particular alarm about beatings and abductions carried out by men wearing military-style uniforms and the press law as well as politicized lawsuits against outspoken newspapers.