Security forces guard NRT's headquarters in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, following a December 7, 2020, raid on the office. (Image credit: NRT)

Iraqi Kurdish security forces raid NRT headquarters, suspend broadcasts

New York, December 8, 2020 – Kurdish Iraqi authorities must reverse their suspension of local broadcaster NRT and allow the outlet to reopen its office and work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Early yesterday morning, security forces affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party raided NRT’s headquarters in the northeastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, damaged and seized broadcasting equipment, padlocked the main door, and stationed forces outside the office, according to news reports, NRT, and a statement by the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, a local press freedom organization.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is the ruling party in Sulaymaniyah governorate and has its own security forces, but is the opposition party in Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government, according to news reports.

Later in the day, the PUK-controlled Ministry of Youth and Culture issued an order suspending NRT’s broadcasts from 11:30 a.m. on December 7 until the same time on December 13, alleging that the broadcaster violated guidelines by negatively referring to government security forces. The order states that any breach of the order would result in more severe penalties.

“Local authorities in Sulaymaniyah, as well as regional Iraqi Kurdistan authorities, must cease their endless harassment of local broadcaster NRT, which they have repeatedly targeted over its coverage of news in the area,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Authorities must allow NRT to reopen its office in Sulaymaniyah and reverse the suspension of its broadcasts immediately. NRT must be allowed to operate freely.”

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

The broadcaster has recently covered protests over unpaid public sector salaries, deteriorating economic conditions, and lack of basic services in Sulaymaniyah governorate, which have taken place in the area since December 2, according to NRT and the Metro Center. NRT has aired footage of clashes between security forces and protesters, including the use of tear gas and water cannons on protesters, and the effect of tear gas on children.

NRT General Director Awat Ali told CPJ via messaging app that the broadcaster’s main office remains under the control of security forces as of today. He said he did not believe security forces had a valid court order to close NRT or suspend its broadcasts. 

Ali added that NRT is now broadcasting from abroad. CPJ confirmed that NRT was on the air as of today.

In an email to CPJ, Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan regional government’s deputy minister for international advocacy coordination, said that the decision to close NRT was made by the Ministry of Youth and Culture at the request of the security forces, and following a legal evaluation of the case. The regional government, which Zebari represents, is controlled by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan in coalition with the PUK and the Gorran Movement.

Zebari said that “NRT has played a negative role” in its coverage of the protests, and alleged that the broadcaster had incited violence and unrest. He also alleged that NRT is “the mouthpiece” of the New Generation Party, and accused the outlet of calling for the overthrow of the regional government.

Zebari added that NRT had been receiving warnings from the Ministry of Youth and Culture since June 2020 for allegedly violating local laws and regulations in its coverage. He said those violations prompted the outlet’s suspension, and also said that NRT’s broadcasting license had not been suspended, so the outlet would be able to resume broadcasts on December 13.

CPJ also emailed the PUK’s media office for comment, but did not immediately receive any response.

Since the beginning of this year, Kurdish security forces have closed NRT’s offices in Erbil and Duhok, the Kurdistan regional government filed a lawsuit over its protest coverage, and the attorney general’s office has called for the outlet’s closure, as CPJ has documented.

[Editors’ note: This article has been corrected in its tenth paragraph to accurately reflect Zebari’s remarks to CPJ.]