Iraqi paper, former editor fined for defaming president

New York, March 16, 2009–The court of appeals in Iraqi Kurdistan should overturn yesterday’s decision to fine an independent newspaper and its former editor-in-chief for defaming Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The defamatory article was a translation of one written in 2008 by a U.S. scholar.

The misdemeanor court in Sulaymaniah, northern Iraq, sentenced Hawlati‘s former editor-in-chief, Abid Aref, to a fine of 3,000,000 dinars (US$2,590) and the newspaper to a fine of 10,000,000 dinars (US$8,653) for publishing a translated report that was critical of the Kurdish leader on January 13, 2008. Bakhtiar Hamasaeed, Hawlati’s lawyer, said he is appealing the court’s decision.

“We are dismayed by this harsh ruling and urge the judiciary to overturn it on appeal,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “We are also deeply dismayed that President Talabani would pursue this lawsuit. As president, he is subject to scrutiny and criticism and this legal recourse undermines his democratic legitimacy.”

The original article was written by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research–a Washington-based think tank–and published on the organization’s Web site. 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. It said that Talabani and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, had amassed fortunes while in power through corruption. 

Talabani sued Hawlati for defaming him by translating and publishing the report. Barzani didn’t file a lawsuit. The judge sentenced the editor-in-chief and the newspaper under the defamation clause of Article 9 of the region’s new press law, which was approved in September 2008. A provision in Article 8 of the same law, however, states that writing about public servants is not considered a crime.

After the court ruling, the editor-in-chief was held at the courthouse for about two hours until the newspaper paid the 3,000,000 dinar fine, Aref told CPJ. He said that he was threatened with two years in jail if he had failed to pay the fine, under the 1969 Iraqi Penal Code. Tariq Fatih, publisher of Hawlati, told CPJ that his newspaper was struggling to raise funds for the larger fine, which the newspaper will have to pay if the court of appeals upholds the ruling. Hawlati is facing charges in 17 other lawsuits mostly filed by government and party officials, Fatih said.

Officials or their surrogates have often targeted independent journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan with politically motivated lawsuits. In January of this year alone, more than 20 lawsuits were filed against journalists, according to the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, a local press freedom watchdog. 

On February 4, a court in Sulaymaniah sentenced Shwan Muhammad of Awene newspaper to a 3,000,000 dinar (US$2,590) fine for defaming a tribal leader in an article by an anonymous author that was published in November 2006, he told CPJ. The court also referred Muhammad, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper at the time the article was published, to face a criminal charge for “hiding information from the court” by refusing to reveal the name of the author. Under Iraq’s penal code he could face a monetary fine as well as prison time if convicted, he told CPJ. The court of appeals is due to reach a decision on the case this week, he said.

“The court of appeals should overturn the ruling against Awene,” Abdel Dayem said. “These lawsuits run counter to the principles of transparency and press freedom that Kurdish officials try to promote.”

Awene faces seven other lawsuits for various articles that the newspaper published, Muhammad said.