Iraqi Kurdish freelance journalist Omed Baroshky, who was released in February 2022 after spending 18 months in prison for his work. (Mustafa Salih)

Iraqi Kurdish journalist Omed Baroshky: Press freedom ‘an illusion’ in the region

Freelance journalist Omed Baroshky spent 18 months in jail over social media posts that were critical of the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan. One of four Iraqi Kurdish reporters listed in CPJ’s 2021 prison census, his incarceration marked yet another low point for a region that has seen a sharp deterioration in the environment for the press in recent years.

Baroshky was released in February after  being convicted on charges that included prosecution under the Law on Misuse of Communication Devices, known as Law 6, which lawmakers billed as a way to counter online harassment but has been used by government officials to persecute independent reporters.

Authorities first arrested Baroshky in August 2020, then briefly released and rearrested him in September of that year. In June 2021, a court in the city of Duhok sentenced him to one year in jail under Law 6, as CPJ documented. In September 2021, a court in Erbil, the region’s capital, extended his sentence by one year after convicting him on two additional charges under the same law.

In a recent phone interview, Baroshky described the charges he faced, his experience in detention, and the state of press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In an email to CPJ in September 2021, Dindar Zebari, the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy, said Baroshky’s conviction was not related to his journalistic work.

Viyan Abbas, the Duhok branch secretary of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, a regional journalists’ union, told CPJ via phone in April 2022 that the syndicate provided Baroshky with a lawyer to assist with his defense on the charges under Law 6, because it is “our duty to defend all journalistic cases.”

You say you were detained by police and assaulted by security forces in connection with your work. Yet Iraqi Kurdish authorities told CPJ that you were not arrested because of your journalism. What is your response to that?

It was clear throughout the investigation that I was arrested and imprisoned due to my journalism work; all the inquiries and questions were referring to it.

I had seven court hearings in Duhok before I was transferred to the regional capital, Erbil. At all the hearings, I was charged and treated as a journalist, but they didn’t charge me under the journalism law because the case was politicized. [I was convicted under] Article 2 of Law Number 6 of 2008, relating to the misuse of communication devices, and accused of acts of sabotage and spying for neighboring countries, which were all fake. The journalists’ union was present at almost all hearings and defended me as a journalist.

During the investigations, there were no clear charges, and it didn’t go through a legal process. For example, I was asked about the posts I had on my social media accounts, my TV interviews about the situation in Duhok, and the articles and reports I was conducting as a freelance journalist.

Do you believe you got a fair court hearing?

Definitely not, the court hearings weren’t fair at all. First, I believe that my arrest is a clear violation to the press and the law itself. I had IDs from both the press syndicate and the outlets I was working for, I shouldn’t have been arrested at all.

People should ask why the court hearings were postponed so many times. It was all because the Kurdish authorities asked the judges forcefully to find us guilty of crimes we were not involved in, but many of them refused to do so because they didn’t want to punish innocent people. That is why [the judges] were threatened andwere moved to the city’s surrounding courts or a remote area.

The nonprofit group Christian Peacemaker Teams published a statement saying you were beaten by 20 people after your arrest. How were you treated in prison?

When I was arrested together with Badal Barwari on August 18, 2020, we were detained at Zirka Prison in Duhok–which belonged to the police–until October 2, 2020, on journalistic charges. The last day, I was moved to Duhok Asayish (security forces) headquarters. I was beaten and abused with kicks and batons by more than 20 people who came from Erbil; I was also blindfolded and handcuffed.

After that, I was transferred to Erbil, although I didn’t know that it was Erbil because I was blindfolded. They put me in solitary confinement and I stayed there for 52 days. None of my family or friends were aware of the place I was detained, or even if I was alive or dead.

The Asayish forces in Erbil videoed us and asked me if I was hit, and I answered, “yes, you did.” But they stopped the recording and asked me once again and said, “I am not talking about Duhok, I am talking about Erbil headquarters.” Then I said “no.”

[Editor’s note: Ashti Majeed, the spokesperson for the Erbil Asaiysh forces, in an email to CPJ in April 2022 denied that Baroshky had been beaten or subjected to insults during his detention in Erbil, adding that “our administration is committed to the legal procedures and principles of human rights in dealing with the detainees.”]

What do you think about Article 2 of Law Number 6 of 2008, relating to the misuse of communication devices, under which you were charged?

The law itself is somewhat necessary to limit and control the social problems and violations using mobile phones and social media platforms that harm people, especially the harassment of girls and women. But the problem is when the authorities are misusing this law to punish the journalists who are conducting reports against them and those who are speaking in opposition to them.

The authorities are trying to punish the activists and journalists with non-political laws just to tell the international community that the prisons are empty of political prisoners.

Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan believed that the region was becoming more media friendly, but we have documented multiple journalist arrests in recent years. How do you see the future of media freedom in your area, Duhok?

Those who claim that Iraqi Kurdistan is becoming more media friendly are working and backed by the authorities here. But if a neutral organization, like CPJ, came and conducted research, it would be clear that journalists are killed, arrested, abducted, and threatened due to their journalistic work. I can truthfully say that freedom of media and freedom of expression in Iraqi Kurdistan are an illusion.

After the 2018 parliamentary elections in Iraqi Kurdistan and especially after new Erbil and Duhok governors were installed, the situation became worse for journalists and freedom fighters. They are trying to silence anyone who raises his or her voice.

I don’t see a brighter future for freedom of media and freedom of expression. I have recently visited six media outlets that covered and supported my case to thank them, they told me that the situation became worse, they can’t work freely, and are even afraid of reporting about the lack of public services. They told me that they expect security forces to storm them and arrest them in any time.

Do you think that your imprisonment had an impact on other journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan?

At the beginning, it impacted other journalists negatively. They were scared, especially when Prime Minister Masrour Barzani alleged that the detained journalists were “spies.” But when internal and international organizations spoke up about our cases, and let people know that we were innocent and the cases were politicized…it encouraged other journalists to…speak loudly and report bravely.

What does the world need to know about press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Journalists from the Badinan area, in Duhok province, are in desperate need of international support to work freely. The authorities are trying to suffocate every voice demanding freedom of media and freedom of expression. We should end the 30 years of injustice against free media and free expression in the Badinan area.

Additional reporting by Soran Rashid.