Beirut, April 27, 2022 – Iraqi authorities must immediately release journalist Matej Kavčič and ensure the foreign press can cover the country freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.
On April 20, soldiers with the Iraqi 20th Infantry Division arrested Kavčič, a Slovenian freelance reporter, at an army checkpoint in the northern city of Sinjar, according to multiple news reports and people familiar with the situation who spoke to CPJ. Kavčič identified himself as a journalist, but Iraqi forces detained him and brought him to a nearby military facility, where they confiscated his phone and questioned him, according to those reports.
Authorities also detained Marlene Förster, a German national, who was traveling with Kavčič, according to those sources. Authorities allege that the pair “pretended to work as journalists” and accused them of collaborating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant and political group, those reports said.
On April 22, authorities transferred Kavčič and Förster to Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, for further questioning, according to those reports and the Berlin-based Kurdish rights group Civaka Azad. No formal charges have been disclosed in their case as of Wednesday, April 27, according to Förster’s mother Lydia Förster, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and Kavčič’s colleague, who spoke to CPJ on the condition that their name not be disclosed.
“Iraqi authorities must release Slovenian journalist Matej Kavčič immediately and without charge, and must ensure that the press can work freely,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Journalists in Iraq must be able to do their jobs without fear of reprisal or being caught in political crosshairs.”
In a statement, the Slovenian student-run broadcaster Radio Študent wrote that Kavčič had traveled to Sinjar to work as a freelance reporter and occasionally contributed to that outlet. Radio Študent wrote that its staff “firmly reject” any accusation that Kavčič was not working as a journalist.
The colleague of Kavčič’s who spoke to CPJ, who works at Radio Študent, said Kavčič had been covering issues affecting ethnic Yazidis in Iraq.
A February 2022 article about the political situation in Syria was initially published by Radio Študent pseudonymously, and the outlet later added a note saying that it was written by Kavčič, reporting from Iraq. He also recently wrote about Kurds in Iraq and immigrants in Slovenia for local Slovenian outlets.
Turkish forces launched a military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq on April 18, according to news reports, which noted that Turkey considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization, and considers local Yazidi militias to be affiliated with the PKK. Yazidi forces have also clashed with Iraqi military forces in recent weeks, according to those reports.
CPJ emailed the Slovenian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, which oversees the country’s relations with Iraq, and the Slovenian Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment, but did not receive any replies.
Elisabeth Schwarz, a representative of the German Federal Foreign Office’s press department, told CPJ via email after publication that they were aware of Förster’s case and that the embassy in Baghdad was providing consular assistance.
CPJ also emailed the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, and Communication and Media Commission for comment, but did not receive any replies.
[Editors’ note: The spelling of Matej Kavčič’s name has been corrected throughout this article. The 12th paragraph has been updated with a response from the German authorities.]