Police are seen at a demonstration in Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, on June 2, 2020. Securify forces at a protest in the city assaulted and detained journalists. (AFP/Shwan Mohammed)

Journalists assaulted, detained while covering COVID-19 protest in Iraqi Kurdistan

On June 2, 2020, Iraqi Kurdish security forces assaulted at least four journalists and detained two others who were covering protests against the COVID-19 restrictions in the northeastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, according to news reports and a report by the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, a local press freedom group.

During a live broadcast from the protest, an unidentified man in plainclothes pushed and shoved reporter Ihsan Sabir and camera operator Mohammad Hassan, who were covering the event for Kurdish broadcaster NRT, and then a uniformed security officer covered their camera and told them to move down the block.

Other security officers then gave the team conflicting orders as to where they should go, and a group of at least four security officers with the Kurdish Asayish intelligence agency approached team and the camera feed was cut off, as seen in that broadcast.

In an NRT news report published later that day, Sabir explained that, after the broadcast cut off, those officers slapped, kicked, and head-butted both journalists and seized their equipment. In the report, Sabir showed bruises on his back, and Hassan showed a bandage on his left leg resulting from a blow from an electric baton. They were taken to hospital and discharged the same day, but their gear, including a camera and memory cards, was not returned, according to that report.

NRT is owned by Saswar Abdulwahid Qader, a businessperson and leader of the opposition New Generation Party, and the broadcaster is known to be supportive of the party, according to news reports.

Security officers at the protest also used an electric baton to beat Bryar Namiq, a reporter and photographer for the news website Sbiey, and officers chased and assaulted Sbiey photographer Aram Shahab as he has leaving the protest, according to the Metro Center report. That reports did not specify exactly how Shahab was attacked, but said that both journalists sustained bruises and minor injuries, were taken to a hospital for treatment, and discharged the same day.

Sbiey is affiliated with the regional opposition Gorran Party, according to the Metro Center.

Asayish agents also arrested arrested Speda TV reporter Yagdar Haji and camera operator Arian Bakr, seized their equipment, and held them for three hours at a local Asayish station, according to the Metro Center and a Facebook post by Haji.   

Haji wrote that he and Bakr were interviewing shopkeepers and business owners in downtown Sulaymaniyah when a couple of security officers arrested them.

“While the rank-and-file officers who arrested us were respectful, a superior officer tried to slap me in the face and insulted me by saying that he would stuff his shoe into my mouth,” he wrote.

They were subsequently taken to an Asayish station, where officers seized their equipment and cell phones, deleted their footage of the protests, and then released them about three hours later, Haji wrote. The Asayish agents returned the journalists’ equipment, but kept the memory cards from their cameras, Haji told the Metro Center.

Speda TV is affiliated with the local opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union party, according to CPJ research.

The media office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the ruling party in Sulaymaniyah, did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.