Kurdish riot police are seen in Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, on June 18, 2020. Security forces recently harassed, detained, and attacked journalists covering protests in the area. (AFP/Shwan Mohammed)

Iraqi Kurdish security forces raid broadcaster, detain and beat journalists, seize equipment

New York, August 14, 2020 – Iraqi Kurdish authorities must cease harassing local news outlets, return journalists’ equipment they have seized, and let reporters cover protests freely and without fear of assault or detention, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 12, Iraqi Kurdish Asayish security forces raided the offices of local broadcaster NRT in the western city of Duhok, and held staffers inside for several hours, according to the Iraqi press freedom group the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq and NRT Duhok correspondent Taeif Goran, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Also that day, Kurdish security forces in Erbil briefly detained an NRT crew covering protests in the city, according to the association statement and Mohammed Amir, one of the reporters, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Yesterday, security forces beat and briefly detained journalists for various outlets covering protests in Duhok, according to news reports and journalists who spoke with CPJ.

“By holding journalists without a warrant, seizing their equipment, and attacking news teams in the streets, Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq are clearly signaling their intention to censor coverage of protests and unrest,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “If the Kurdish region wants its claims to democracy to be taken seriously, officials must ensure that all media can work freely, regardless of affiliation, and that all reporting equipment is immediatey returned.”

Goran told CPJ that security forces held five NRT employees at the Duhok office during the raid: reporters Bewar Helmy and Bryar Nerway, camera operator Wahab Binyamin, video editor Rewar Ali, and driver Sherif Pasi.

“They held them from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and prevented them from leaving the premises on the grounds that they were protecting them from protesters. As a result of this they couldn’t cover the protests that were taking place in Duhok and across Kurdistan,” he told CPJ.

Protests over unpaid salaries, as well as a remembrance event marking the fourth anniversary of the killing of Roj News reporter Widad Hussein, have taken place throughout Iraqi Kurdistan since August 12, according to the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq and the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, another local press rights group.

Amir told CPJ that he was reporting on a salary protest in Erbil’s Shanad Park with camera operator Goran Abdul-Khaliq when security forces stopped them.

“As many as 15 policemen went out and put their hands in front of the camera’s lens to stop the live broadcast. We were held for several hours and our equipment was confiscated. They eventually let us go on the condition that we don’t return to cover the protests or otherwise we would be arrested again,” Amir said, adding that authorities did not return their equipment.

NRT Erbil Bureau Chief Rebwar Kakay told CPJ via email that security forces seized the equipment of two other NRT crews who were reporting on the Erbil protests.

“Journalists Hogr Samad, Mohammed Khalil, Umed Chomani, Hersh Qadir and Najmadin Sdiq were covering the protests when security forces seized all their cameras to prevent them from covering tensions between security forces and protesters. Mohammed Khalil tried to use his cell phone to film the protests, but when security forces saw him they snatched his phone and broke it,” Kakay said.

Authorities held Khalil without charge for eight hours at Erbil’s Azadi police station, Kakay said, adding that, as of yesterday night, the team’s cameras, live streaming devices, press badges, and cell phones had not been returned.

NRT General Manager Awat Ali told CPJ via messaging app that Kurdish authorities have seized and never returned at least 10 cameras and other electronic devices belonging to the broadcaster in recent years.

“This is in addition to the dozens of cameras and pieces of equipment that they have broken,” he said.

NRT, which is owned by businessman and leader of the opposition New Generation Party Shaswar Abdulwahid, has recently been the target of criticism by Iraqi Kurdish authorities, and its staffers have repeatedly been harassed and detained for their work, as CPJ has documented.

On August 12 in Erbil, Kurdish Asayish officers harassed and insulted a crew working for the broadcaster Payam TV, consisting of reporter Imram Amir and camera operators Yunus Abdullah and Abdulmutallab Khushwi, according the Press Freedom Advocacy Association and Amir, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. The station is affiliated with the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Group party.

Amir told CPJ that he and the camera operators were covering the protests live and planning to conduct an interview with a member of parliament when Asayish officers shoved and insulted them, and seized their equipment.

“They insulted and harassed us and seized our equipment, which they haven’t yet given back to us. None of us sustained any injuries,” Amir said.

Yesterday, during a ceremony in Duhok to mark the death of Widad Hussein, Asayish security forces assaulted and detained a TV crew working for the broadcaster Gali Kurdistan consisting of reporter Karwan Sadiq and camera operator Burhan Haji, according to the Metro Center, news reports, and Sadiq, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. Gali Kurdistan is affiliated with the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK).

“As soon as we arrived we were arrested by Asayish forces and held for 3 or four hours. During our detention we were slapped, kicked and insulted. They handcuffed us and dragged us into a car and they seized our equipment, which we haven’t yet gotten back,” said Sadiq.  

At the same event, Asayish officers also arrested Metro Center representative Ayham Saeed and Umed Baroshky, a reporter for the news website PRS Media, which is affiliated with the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union, according to Metro Center and Baroshky, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Baroshky told CPJ that Asayish officers slapped and kicked him and Karwan Sadiq, causing bruises but no serious injuries.

“My hands are still hurting,” he said.

Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s deputy minister for international advocacy coordination, did not immediately reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.