A journalist films outside the Sulaymaniyah International Airport in January 2019. Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan say disputes between the region's main political parties, the PDK and PUK, leave the press vulnerable. (AFP/Shwan Mohammed)
A journalist films outside the Sulaymaniyah International Airport in January 2019. Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan say disputes between the region's main political parties, the PDK and PUK, leave the press vulnerable. (AFP/Shwan Mohammed)

Press freedom on ‘brink of extinction’ in Iraqi Kurdistan, journalists say

“Ever since I started working as a journalist nine years ago, I have been under constant pressure from my family, my tribe, and my community to give up journalism. Friends have been asked by security forces to sever ties with me,” said freelance journalist Guhdar Zebari, when he met with CPJ in the empty lobby of an Erbil hotel.

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Zebari, who reports on local news for several TV and radio outlets, said he has been assaulted and detained several times, and had equipment seized and broken. Tired of abuse, pressure, and a lack of protection for local journalists, Zebari, who is based in Bahdinan, in the northwestern province of Duhok, said he was considering leaving Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Freedom of expression is on the brink of extinction. Speaking of murdered journalists, like Wedat Hussein, is a red line. Reporting on corruption involving members of the ruling party or on any ties to the ruling Barzani family is impossible. Freelancers have no rights in Kurdistan,” Zebari, who works for outlets that are not affiliated with the party, said.

The reporter was one of five journalists with whom CPJ met in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah earlier this year. All of them spoke of how disputes between Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main political parties—the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), which governs the Erbil and Duhok regions, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which governs the Sulaymaniyah region—have created issues from authorities and interviewees. Impunity in cases of violence against the press and a lack of a truly independent judiciary and press regulation body have left journalists feeling vulnerable and at heightened risk of attack.

Hana Chomani, a reporter and photographer for the broadcaster Dwarozh, told CPJ that he encounters difficulties on a daily basis while reporting in Erbil. “As ground reporters, we constantly struggle to do our jobs and we are unprotected. Reporters working for Sulaymaniyah-based outlets have problems reporting the news in Erbil and the other way around.”

His outlet, Dwarozh, is owned by Asia Cell, a telecommunications company owned by Farouk Mustafa Rasool, a businessman affiliated with the PUK.

“Often when conducting interviews or filming, plainclothes officers claiming to work for the Asayish Kurdish security force prevent me from working because Dwarozh isn’t supportive of the government. Sometimes also civilians abuse me verbally or refuse to talk to me because Dwarozh is critical of the authorities,” Chomani said.

Asos Hardi, founder of the independent Kurdish newspapers Hawlati and Awene, said that the partisan divide has increased journalists’ vulnerability to harassment and attacks.

“Every party has its own territory and armed forces, and criticism and diversity aren’t tolerated. In the areas under their control, they can attack, kidnap, imprison, and even kill journalists. Journalists can get in trouble with political parties and individuals within the parties. No government, party, or security official has ever been prosecuted for attacks on journalists,” he told CPJ during a meeting in his spartan office in Sulaymaniyah.

Since the independence referendum, CPJ has documented detentions, harassment, assaults and attacks perpetrated by both sides. And killings like that of Kawa Garmyane, who was murdered in retaliation for his work in 2013, and Duhok reporter Hussein remain unsolved. Venizer Revink, a lawyer who is pursuing justice for Hussein, said that police and authorities have delayed sharing evidence, including video footage of the area from where Hussein was abducted in August 2016.

Neither the Kurdish Justice Ministry nor the Kurdistan Regional Government’s media office responded to CPJ’s email requesting comment, sent on September 5.

Hardi said that the lack of an independent judiciary means that laws that are supposed to protect journalists are either not enforced or are implemented in accordance with the parties’ interests. He added that the co-optation by political parties of civil society organizations, including the Journalists’ Syndicate—a government-funded body set up to defend journalists’ rights—leaves reporters unprotected.

The Journalists’ Syndicate of Kurdistan did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment, sent on August 8.

Journalists are the first to suffer the consequences when there are protests or tensions between parties. Journalists are unprotected.
Kamal Chomani, freelancer

Kamal Chomani, a Hamburg-based freelance journalist and non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told CPJ that independent media in Kurdistan is fading under the grip of the ruling political parties. He left Iraqi Kurdistan following death threats and an attempt to arrest him in March 2018. The journalist, who is related to Dwarozh reporter Hana Chomani, said he thinks that press freedom will worsen under new Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, of the KDP, because of the leader’s background as head of the Kurdish intelligence and security agencies.

“Both KDP and PUK see independent journalists as enemies, and journalists are the first to suffer the consequences when there are protests or tensions between parties. Journalists are unprotected. The judiciary isn’t independent. Positions in the Journalists’ Syndicate are shared by PUK and PDK, and even though it sometimes provides legal assistance to members, non-members aren’t eligible for it,” Chomani said.

He added, “We have a press law that, despite some loopholes, is good, but parties resort to other laws, including the Law on Prevention of Misuse of Telecommunication Devices, to sue journalists. ”

CPJ emailed both the media offices of the PUK and the PDK on August 16 for comment. Neither representative responded.

Legal loopholes

The 2007 Kurdistan Press Law enshrines press freedom and freedom of expression, grants journalists the right not to reveal their sources, and establishes that the information and opinions disseminated by journalists cannot be used as a reason to injure them, and that anyone who insults or injures journalists in the course of their work should be punished. It also sets limits to press freedom, leaves the interpretation of the law at the discretion of the authorities, and leaves the door open for the law to be overridden by judicial decision or other laws, including the Iraqi Penal Code.

Journalists who have tried to use the law to challenge authorities or security forces told CPJ they hit a wall of indifference and delays.

In August 2010, Ari Luqman, whose outlet—the Kurdish News Network (KNN)—is affiliated with the opposition party Gorran (Change), sued the governor, the police and the Asayish directors of Chamchamal, a city 46 km west of Kirkuk, for breaking his camera and detaining him briefly while he was covering a protest. Nine years later, Luqman said, he is still awaiting a verdict.

“I was summoned to the police station twice and to court once to give my testimony in March 2019, but nothing came out of it,” Luqman said. “Law doesn’t apply to everybody. Files are put at the bottom of stacks so that they don’t move forward.”

Other journalists from KNN, with whom CPJ met with, said that officials bypass the press law to seek disproportionate damages in defamation cases.

Ranj Osman, director of the station’s office in the city of Ranya, told CPJ that when the PUK military commander Rasool Omar Latif accused him and KNN reporter Peshdar Babekir of defamation in November, Latif filed the complaint under the Iraqi penal code, rather than the press law.

The commander is seeking 1 billion Iraqi dinars (US$837,000). Osman said that if the complaint had been filed under the press law, penalties would have been limited to up to 2 million Iraqi dinars (US$1,680) and the issuance of a public apology.

“The hearing has been postponed twice already. I think this case is intended to put pressure on journalists and silence them. Courts in Kurdistan aren’t independent. Political parties change the law as they see fit,” Osman added.

His co-accused, Babekir, told CPJ he thinks that the case was politically motivated.

“PUK and PDK consider every report critical of them to be defamation or incitement to violence. They feel untouchable and beyond criticism and they accuse journalists of destabilizing the country. I have requested assistance from the Journalists’ Syndicate, but nothing has happened so far. I feel that my life is in danger,” he said.

The PUK media office did not immediately respond to CPJ’s email requesting comment about the KNN defamation.

Dwaroz journalist Hana Chomani said that the overall climate for the press in Iraqi Kurdistan leads to self-censorship. “The problem is the lack of protection, both legal and physical. There are stories I don’t cover because they will put me in harm’s way and nobody will come to my help,” he said.