Kurdish journalist Rebwar Kerim Wali was recently named in a government complaint over a post on his Facebook page. (Photo: Rebwar Kerim Wali)

Iraqi Kurdish authorities file complaint against journalist for COVID-19 criticism

On July 22, 2020, the attorney general’s office of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq filed a complaint against Kurdish journalist Rebwar Kerim Wali, alleging he violated the 2008 Law on Misuse of Communication Devices, according to news reports, a statement by a government spokesperson, which CPJ reviewed, and Wali, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

If charged and convicted, the law carries punishments of up to five years in jail and fines of up to 5 million Iraqi dinars ($4,200).

The government statement alleged that a March 28 post criticizing COVID-19 restrictions in Iraqi Kurdistan posted on Wali’s personal Facebook account, where he frequently posts news commentary has over 63,000 followers, incited people to ignore the government’s pandemic restrictions.

The post, which CPJ reviewed, said that the virus had been “turned into hysteria used by different regimes for their own good” and encouraged people to disregard the region’s lockdown.

Wali, who lives in Sweden, told CPJ that the post was removed by Facebook following a number of complaints filed people he believes were supporters of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party.

CPJ emailed Facebook for comment, but did not immediately receive any response.

Wali said that he believes authorities are actually pursuing him in retaliation for op-eds he wrote for Kurdish broadcaster Rudaw, in which he criticized Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. The prime minister is related to Kurdish President Nechirvan, who owns the broadcaster.

Until April 2020, Wali worked as a columnist and host of the talk-show “Kawanay Sur” (“Red Bracket”) on Rudaw. He told CPJ he believes the regional government pressured Rudaw to remove his articles, at least two of which have been scrubbed from the broadcaster’s website.

He said he resigned in April out of concern that the government may close Rudaw if he remained there, and said he would not return to Kurdistan out of “fear for my life.”

Rahman Ghareeb, general coordinator of the Metro Center for Journalists Rights’ and Advocacy, a local press freedom group, told CPJ via messaging app that Wali had written many articles praising the Kurdistan Democratic Party and criticizing other parties, and said the government should not be pursuing a case against him “for writing one critical thing about the KDP.”

In an email to CPJ, Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s international advocacy coordinator, said Wali’s Facebook post “encouraged people to ignore government regulations on the Coronavirus outbreak, thus endangering social security amid a dangerously fragile situation.”

[Editor’s Note: The text in the seventh paragraph was updated to correct the name of the official the journalist wrote about in an op-ed, and in the last paragraph to add Zebari’s response to CPJ.]