New York, May 24, 2017–Authorities in northern Iraq should immediately release Aram Bakhtiar, a journalist for the independent broadcaster NRT, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Kurdish security forces arrested Bakhtiar on May 22 on accusations of defaming a judge, NRT deputy newsroom manager Soran Rashid told CPJ. The channel’s director, Awat Ali, today reported that a court had issued a warrant for his arrest, saying Bakhtiar would not be released until Ali is detained.
NRT, an independent broadcaster that criticizes the rival Kurdish parties that dominate politics in the semi-autonomous northern provinces of Iraq, reported that security forces arrested Bakhtiar in the Kifri District of Sulaymaniyah. The arrest followed Kirkuk-Garmyan Appellate Court President Akram Faraj’s filing of a criminal complaint on May 3 alleging Bakhtiar had defamed him in a report on a government employee sentenced to 11 years in prison for stealing milk and diapers after his salary was cut.
NRT’s Rashid said Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, were holding the journalist at the police station in the town of Kalar, roughly 135 kilometers (84 miles) south of the city of Sulaymaniyah.
The same judge issued a warrant for the arrest of Ali, NRT’s director, the channel reported today. The report cited Ali as saying that his arrest was a precondition for Bakhtiar’s release. CPJ could not immediately reach Ali for comment.
“If Kurdish authorities have any evidence Aram Bakhtiar and NRT did anything worse than report on the human effects of government salary cuts, let them produce it immediately or let the journalist go,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said. “Kurdish authorities should cease arresting and trying to intimidate the media for its work.”
Alex Ebsary, director of public affairs at the Kurdistan Regional Government’s office in Washington, D.C., on May 22 told CPJ that he was not aware of the case and would seek more information from the KRG in Iraq. The office did not return follow-up calls from CPJ over subsequent days.
Bashar Mandalawi, of the Journalist Freedoms Observatory, an Iraqi press freedom group, told CPJ that Bakhtiar’s arrest may have been a warning to journalists from Kurdish authorities against reporting on court cases, though he said no laws in Iraq or the semi-autonomous provinces of northern Iraq forbid such reporting.
Iraqi Kurdish journalists in 2014 told CPJ that impunity for attacks on the press, including murder and arson, led them to censor themselves to avoid retaliation.