People are seen in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, on March 17, 2020. Regional authorities recently threatened local broadcaster NRT. (AFP/Safin Hamed)

Iraqi Kurdistan attorney general calls for closure of NRT broadcaster

New York, June 22, 2020 — Authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan should allow the NRT broadcaster to cover the news freely and without official harassment, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On June 15, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s attorney general’s office sent a letter to the Iraqi Culture Ministry calling for the closure of NRT’s Kurdish and Arabic-language channels, according to a news report by NRT, which included a copy of the letter, and NRT General Director Awat Ali, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

The letter alleged that NRT’s coverage of protests in the region “encouraged [people] to violate the Health Ministry’s guidelines” pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also alleged that the broadcaster had “disrupt[ed] the mental state of people during such a sensitive and dangerous period.”

Ali told CPJ that NRT heard about the letter from media reports, and that no practical measures have been taken against the broadcaster.

“The Iraqi Culture Ministry should reject the request to close NRT, and allow the broadcaster to continue to cover the COVID-19 pandemic and any other newsworthy events freely, including protests,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Iraqi Kurdish authorities should not be in the business of harassing and intimidating local outlets in an effort to change their coverage of important issues.”

In its news report, NRT said that the broadcaster has not produced any Arabic-language programming since its Baghdad offices were ransacked in October 2019, as CPJ documented at the time.

Ali told CPJ that he believed the letter was “an attempt to intimidate NRT to stop covering the ongoing anti-government protests in the Kurdistan region, especially after the decision to cut public servants’ salaries.”

Protests began in Iraqi Kurdistan last month over the economic impact of the pandemic and the nonpayment of public employees’ wages, according to news reports.

Rahman Gharib, head of the Metro Center for Advocacy and Journalists’ Rights, a local press freedom group, told CPJ via messaging app that the closure of NRT would tarnish the reputation of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

“Media is an important pillar of democracy. If you close down a broadcaster, why would you call yourself a democracy?” he said.

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Health Ministry previously sent a letter to the attorney general calling for the broadcaster’s closure in April, following a report alleging that authorities had inflated the number of COVID-19 deaths to discourage people from demonstrating, as CPJ documented at the time.

NRT is owned by Shaswar Abdulwahid, a businessperson and leader of the opposition New Generation Party, according to news reports.

In an email to CPJ after this article was published, Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s deputy minister for international advocacy coordination, alleged that the attorney general’s complaint against the broadcaster was “because of a potential threat to public health.”

Zebari said that the regional government was evaluating the complaints against NRT, and said that one potential response could be “a temporary closure [of the outlet] for a short time.”   

[Editors’ Note: This article has been updated in its last two paragraphs to include Zebari’s response to CPJ.]