Freelance journalist sued and allegedly threatened in Iraq

New York, July 8, 2010—Shwan Ahmed, a freelance Iraqi journalist, is facing criminal defamation charges based on a series of articles he wrote alleging corruption in Sulaimaniyah, in northeastern Iraq. Ahmed told CPJ he was threatened by one of the parties in the case.

Ahmed said charges were filed against him and that he received the threats after publishing a series of articles in June about alleged corruption within the Sulaimaniyah-based Sardam Printing and Publishing House, a publisher of mainly Kurdish writers, according to CPJ research and local news reports. In his articles, which first appeared in Awena, a Kurdish weekly, Ahmed alleges that one of the writers in charge of Sadram, Rauf Bikat, had mismanaged government-donated land. Bikat responded to Ahmed’s allegations in an online article for Awena and filed a criminal defamation suit against the journalist in June.

According to Ahmed, on Monday evening, Bikat’s son, Ari Rauf—a former police officer—called him and said: “My father responded to you with a pen but I will respond with bullets.” Earlier the same day, according to Ahmed, Rauf called and said he was coming “to get” him. Rahman Gharib, who works at Metro Center, a local press freedom organization, told CPJ that he accompanied Ahmed to Sulaymaniyah Court on Tuesday to file a lawsuit against Rauf for threatening him.

Rauf told CPJ by phone that he did not threaten Ahmed. He said he has filed his own lawsuit against Ahmed for defamation, in addition to his father’s, in Sulaimaniyah Court. 

“The two criminal defamation suits against Shwan Ahmed constitute legal harassment,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Rauf Bikat is certainly entitled to defend his reputation, but this should be a civil not criminal matter.”

As for the threats, the head of police in Sulaymaniyah, Najem Ad-Din Qader, was quoted in local news reports as saying that “police forces will make great efforts to investigate the case.”

According to a Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate report released Sunday, there has been an increase in violations, including death threats, against local journalists. During the first half of this year, it reported 87 violations, in comparison to 50 violations during the same period in 2009.

In May, freelance journalist Sardasht Osman, 23, was found shot to death in Mosul, after being taken from Arbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Before being killed he received several threatening phone calls asking him to stop writing about the Kurdistan Regional Government and its officials. His last articles were about a high-ranking official allegedly involved in corruption.

“Not long ago Iraqi Kurdistan was a haven for free expression,” said Simon. No more. In the context of violent attacks on the press, these alleged threats against Shwan Ahmed must be taken seriously. We are encouraged by the commitment to investigate this incident and the police should take action if Ari Rauf has taken any steps to carry out the alleged threats.”