Iraqi president launches lawsuit against Kurdish weekly

New York, January 30, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the criminal defamation lawsuit filed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Tuesday against the editor-in-chief of the independent Kurdish weekly Hawlati for translating and publishing a report written by a U.S. scholar.

Tariq Fatih, publisher of Hawlati, told CPJ the newspaper was served papers on Tuesday notifying it of a criminal libel complaint against Editor-in-Chief Abid Aref for a critical report the paper translated and published on January 13. The report was written by Michael Rubin for the U.S. nonprofit American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. The report was highly critical of Talabani, who is also head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, concluding that “the unreliability of [Iraqi Kurdistan] leadership makes any long-term U.S.-Kurdish alliance unwise.”

“We are deeply concerned by the frivolous criminal defamation suit launched by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani against Hawlati’s editor-in-chief,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Hawlati translated and published a report that sought to describe public officials and their actions. Journalists should not face criminal penalties for covering such public matters. This prosecution is firmly at odds with the image that Iraqi Kurdistan officials regularly promote of a region that supports democracy and press freedom. President Talabani should drop this suit immediately.”

Fatih said the case was filed under Article 433 of the 1969 Iraqi Penal Code, which criminalizes defamation and sets prison and monetary penalties. Fatih told CPJ that Aref will appear in court in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, on February 4. He said two government dailies—Khabat and Kurdistani Nuwe—reported that Barzani had also filed a criminal complaint. Fatih said the newspaper had not been served notice of that complaint as yet.

Azad Jindyany, head of the central press office for Talabani’s party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, confirmed to CPJ today that the criminal defamation case was filed. By translating the report and publishing it, he said, Hawlati had promoted the defamation of Talabani and the other Kurdish leaders. The spokesman said Talabani would file a lawsuit against Rubin in the United States.

“I find it incredibly ironic that the Kurdistan leadership responds to an essay that criticizes the silencing of journalists with a frivolous lawsuit,” Rubin told CPJ. Talabani “should have much better things to do than harass an independent newspaper.”

Rubin’s article—“Is Iraqi Kurdistan a Good Ally?”—questioned U.S. strategic relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, pointing out undemocratic governance, rampant corruption, and anti-U.S. positions.

Jindyany cited “issues” with Rubin’s report, specifically references to what were said to be the practices of Kurdish leaders in hosting U.S. leaders, and to Talibani’s personal worth. In his report, Rubin wrote that Iraqi Kurds “shower visiting U.S. officials with hospitality, arranging lavish banquets and, in a few cases, even facilitating liaisons with women.” He also wrote: “While in office, both Barzani and Talabani have amassed fortunes in excess of $2 billion and $400 million, respectively.”

The media in Iraq’s Kurdistan region are dominated by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and 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 and 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.