New York, August 5, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, to drop a defamation complaint against an opposition weekly, Rozhnama. The complaint, filed under Saddam Hussein-era criminal statutes, seeks US$1 billion in damages and the closing of the newspaper.
“It is astounding that the KDP is trying to make the case that Rozhnama’s reporting was defamatory,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The absurd damage claim reveals that this is not a serious lawsuit but a crude attempt to use the judiciary to silence a newspaper.”
On July 20, Rozhnama, published a report accusing the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, of profiting from illegal oil smuggling to Iran. Based on several sources, the author of the piece, Sirwan Rasheed, alleged that the two parties have made millions from the practice. The parties deny the story’s claims.
Accusations of oil smuggling are deeply sensitive. Because profits from illicit oil sales would bypass the central government in Baghdad, coverage of the allegations heightens tension between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government. Smuggling also undercuts international sanctions against Iran. Hundreds of tanker trucks are entering Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan each day, The New York Times has reported.
In its lawsuit, filed five days after the story was published, the KDP asks a regional court to issue a travel ban against Rasheed as well as the paper’s editor-in-chief, Azad Chalek, and its owner, Nawshirwan Mustafa.
The complaint was filed under the Saddam-era penal code rather than the more liberal 2008 Iraqi Kurdistan press law. CPJ has repeatedly called on Iraqi officials to end the use of the repressive penal code and to instead rely on the press law. The press law limits damage claims and does not allow for the closing of a newspaper.
“This is a politicized case and an attempt to put pressure on the media in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Chalek told CPJ. He said “the media in Kurdistan are watching Rozhnama’s case carefully,” pointing out that this case might create a dangerous precedent in Iraqi Kurdistan. The first court hearing is scheduled for August 8 in Arbil. “We want to change the location because many judges in Arbil are aligned with the KDP,” Chalek told CPJ.