In October 2020, a captain with the Iraqi Kurdish Asayish security forces ordered the closure of the Erbil office of Assyrian National Broadcasting (ANB), according to a statement by the Assyrian Policy Institute, a local rights group, and ANB’s Erbil office manager, William Bnyameen Adam Khlapieel, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
ANB, a California-based privately owned Assyrian-language broadcaster that airs news and TV shows about ethnic Assyrians, first applied for a permit to operate in Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2020, Bnyameen told CPJ.
He said that Iraqi Kurdish authorities told ANB that the broadcaster needed to obtain approval from the General Directorate for Publishing and Media, the Ministry of Culture and Youth, the Ministry of Interior, and the General Directorate of Asayish.
The General Directorate for Publishing and Media and the Ministry of Culture and Youth approved the station’s permit request by late January, Bnyameen said. In a letter to the Interior Ministry reviewed by CPJ, the Ministry of Culture and Youth recommended that ANB be granted a permit to broadcast from the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Duhok.
At the time, a representative from the Ministry of Culture and Youth verbally granted Bnyameen permission to operate the broadcaster on Facebook while it awaited a response from the Interior Ministry, he said.
ANB aired reports from its Erbil office from June to late October 2020 on its Facebook page, where it has about 96,000 followers. The office covered topics including Turkish airstrikes in border areas where the Assyrian community is based as well as news stories about the lives of Assyrians in Iraq.
Bnyameen told CPJ that Asayish agents summoned him for questioning three times between March and October 2020.
In March, before ANB had aired any broadcasts, agents asked him about “ANB’s editorial line and programming,” and seemed to want to understand the station’s planned content, he said.
On August 13, agents summoned him again and asked about the station’s alleged hostility toward the Assyrian Church of the East, which has been covered critically by ANB, as well as Bnyameen’s alleged personal hostility toward former Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and his personal reason for voting against the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum.
On October 26, Asayish Captain Sangar Ahmed summoned Bnyameen and ordered him to cease all of ANB’s activities until the broadcaster’s permit was approved by the Interior Ministry and the Asayish, he said. ANB’s Erbil office stopped uploading videos to Facebook following that meeting, Bnyameen said.
Bnyameen approached the Ministry of Culture repeatedly to inquire about the status of ANB’s permit following that meeting, he said, and on November 5, the Ministry of Culture sent another letter to the Interior Ministry requesting an update on the case.
In December 2020, an Interior Ministry representative told Bnyameen that the ministry had referred the matter to the Asayish on January 13, 2020, he said. Later that month, Ismat Argushi, general director of the Asayish in Erbil, summoned Bnyameen to a meeting, the journalist told CPJ.
“When I asked him why he had ordered that we stop working, he said that we disrespect the region by using the term ‘northern Iraq’ instead of Iraqi Kurdistan,” Bnyameen said. He told CPJ that Argushi “promised to solve the problem in two days” and gave ANB verbal permission to resume broadcasting, but also referred the case to the Kurdistan Regional Security Council, which coordinates the work of security and intelligence forces.
“We don’t understand why the case has been referred to the Security Council. Since then, nothing has happened and we have decided to go public now,” Bnyameen told CPJ on April 21, 2021.
Previously, in November 2019, Asayish officers detained Bnyameen for 13 days after he returned from a two-week assignment in northern Syria, and allegedly beat him and questioned him about his reporting, as CPJ documented at the time.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council, the Ministry of Youth and Culture, the Interior Ministry, the office of Ismat Argoushi, and the regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy, Dindar Zebari, did not reply to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via email and messaging app.