Security forces deploy during a rally called for by the New Generation Movement, a Kurdish opposition party, in Iraqi Kurdistan's northeastern city of Sulaymaniyah on August 6, 2022. (AFP/Shwan Mohammed)

Iraqi Kurdish authorities detain, raid, harass journalists and media outlets covering protests 

Beirut, August 9, 2022 – Iraqi Kurdistan authorities should immediately cease detaining and harassing journalists and media workers and allow them to report on political unrest freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

On August 5 and August 6, Asayish security forces in several locations in Iraqi Kurdistan interfered with the work of at least 20 journalists and media workers with detentions, harassment, raids, and the closure of at least one media outlet, according to multiple news reports, local press freedom groups Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate, the Metro Center for Journalists Rights and Advocacy, and the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq, and several journalists affected who spoke to CPJ. 

All of the journalists were covering or preparing to cover demonstrations on August 6 by the opposition party New Generation Movement over taxes, fuel prices, and employment opportunities, according to those sources. 

“Authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have reached a new low with their detention and harassment of reporters and media workers seeking to cover civil unrest,” said CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator Sherif Mansour, in Washington, D.C. “Iraqi Kurdistan was once a haven for the free press in the Middle East but now the region is a prime perpetrator of press freedom violations.” 

On Friday, August 5, the day before the demonstrations, security forces detained Taif Goran and Biryar Nerwayi, reporters at privately owned television broadcaster NRT, in front of the channel’s office in the city of Duhok in western Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the broadcaster’s report, and Goran, who spoke to CPJ on the phone. Goran told CPJ that “the security forces didn’t tell us any legal reason behind our arrest” and that the two were released without charge on bail after 27 hours in custody. Goran said that the forces also confiscated equipment from the office including five cameras, two livestream boxes, five microphones, and two tripods, which were all returned when the journalists were released.

NRT is owned by the Kurdish businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid, the leader of the New Generation Movement, who called for the protests.

On Saturday August 6, Asayish forces raided the privately owned website and TV outlet Rast Media office in the city of Duhok and shut it down without giving any reasons, according to the outlet’s Facebook post and Omed Baroshky, director of Rast News, who spoke to CPJ on the phone. Baroshky told CPJ that “we have completed all the legal procedures to work freely as a media outlet, but they asked us to shut it down and go home anyway.” As of August 9, the office has remained closed. 

On the same day at 10:00 a.m. in Erbil, the regional capital, five plainclothes security officers raided the home of Ayub Ali Warty, a reporter at broadcaster Kurdish News Network, which is affiliated with the opposition Gorran party, and detained the journalist, according to Warty, who spoke to CPJ over the phone and posted about the incident on Facebook. The officers escorted him to Asayish headquarters for investigation before releasing him at midnight, he said. Warty said he was verbally abused, but did not provide details of the insults. 

“During the investigation, I was told that if I want to live as a critical journalist, Erbil is not the right place,” he said. He said that he was forced to sign a blank paper without knowing the reason, and was told the paper “could put me in jail for 300 years.” When he was released without charge, Warty said the officers told him he was arrested “by mistake.” 

Also on Saturday in Erbil, NRT reporters Rizgar Kochar, Omed Chomani, and Hersh Qadir were detained by officers in plain clothes, according to two videos posted on Facebook by the broadcaster and Qadir, who told CPJ via phone that the officers also raided his home. Qadir said they were arrested in front of their office, and when they asked about the officers’ identity “they stressed that they are Asayish forces and we have to go with them.” He said the officers turned the journalists over to armed security forces who placed them in hoods and took them to the Asayish headquarters in Erbil. He said he believes that “the only reason was to prevent us from covering the demonstrations.” Qadir said the three were released without charge after six hours and after they were forced to sign documents without being allowed to read them. 

Also on Saturday, NRT reporters Diyar Mohammed and Soran Mohammed and NRT cameraman Mahmoud Razgar were arrested by security forces while covering a protest in the town of Chamchamal, in Sulaymaniyah governorate in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan, according to a Facebook post by the broadcaster and Soran Mohammed, who spoke to CPJ on the phone. Soran Mohammed told CPJ that security forces blocked the crew’s camera, ordered the journalists to go with them to their headquarters in the city, and seized their equipment including two cameras, one tripod, and two microphones. The officers told the journalists that they would remain in custody until the demonstrations were dispersed, he said. The three were released without charge three hours later, but the officers kept their equipment until Sunday, he said. 

On the same day in the city of Sulaymaniyah, a crew with independent news website Westga News, made up of chief editor and owner Sirwan Gharib, photographer Zanyar Mariwan, and editors Hevar Hiwa and Arkan Jabar, was arrested by security forces while covering demonstrations, according to a Westga News statement and Gharib, who spoke to CPJ via phone call. In the statement, Westga News said “the team was there to cover the demonstrations in an impartial and professional manner, and their arrest is against the laws and freedom of the press.” Gharib said the crew was detained for almost four hours before it was released without charge. 

In the same city on Saturday, Zhilya Ali, reporter for the privately owned internet television channel and news website Diplomatic, was detained with the outlet’s cameraman Azhi Abdulqadir the moment they stepped out of a taxi when they arrived to cover a protest, Ali told CPJ via phone. In a Facebook post, Ali said the two were arrested and brought to Asayish headquarters in order “to be prevented from covering the demonstrations.” Ali told CPJ that the security forces confiscated her phone, which they returned after she and the cameraman were released without charge two hours later. 

Also on Saturday, Hardi Osman, reporter for the independent website Peregraph was detained for five hours while he was trying to cover the protests in Sulaymaniyah city, according to a tweet by his employer and the reporter who spoke to CPJ over the phone. He said that the forces took him to Asayish headquarters before transferring him to a section of Kani Goma prison. 

He said that the forces also seized his equipment, including his phone, his microphone, and a voice recorder, and forced him to fill out a form asking “very personal questions” — details of which he did not provide to CPJ — before he was released without charge and without the equipment. He said he retrieved the equipment from Asayish headquarters on Tuesday.

Also in Sulaymaniyah city on Saturday, Awder Omer, video reporter for news website NasKurd, was covering a protest live on the website’s Facebook page when two members of the Asayish forces seized his phone and confiscated and broke his mobile internet modem, he told CPJ via phone. “They told me to leave and not cover the protests,” he said. 

On the same day in the city of Kalar, in Sulaymaniyah governorate Mohammed Mahmood, reporter for the independent broadcaster Radio Deng, was detained by security forces while covering a protest and held for five hours before he was released without charge, according to a Facebook post by the radio station and Mahmood, who spoke to CPJ via phone. 

Mahmood said that security forces interrupted his reporting on Facebook Live for Radio Deng and asked him to delete his footage. When he refused, he said they beat him on his legs and arms and took him to Asayish headquarters, where they asked him to sign a paper which they would not allow him to read. When he refused again, he said they beat him again. 

On Saturday also in Sulaymaniyah, journalist Snur Karim and camera operator Mohammed Azad Majeed of the U.S.-Congress funded Voice of America Kurdish were detained by Asayish security forces for two hours while covering a protest on Facebook Live for the outlet, according to an email from Voice of America public relations officer Anna Morris and a VOA statement provided to CPJ. 

In the statement, VOA said the team had received permission from local authorities to report there but was detained for “several hours.” Their mobile phones and microphone were seized and later returned, Morris said. 

Morris told CPJ the two were taken to a prison where Karim was forced to sign a “pledge” without being allowed to read it and was asked personal questions about her family, car, lifestyle, and political views. 

When contacted by CPJ via messaging app for comment on the arrests, raids, closures, and alleged beatings, Sulaymaniyah governorate Asayish security forces spokesperson Yasin Sami directed CPJ to a Facebook post by the Sulaymaniyah security directorate, a committee representing local government, police, and Asayish forces, denying the arrests. CPJ called Duhok Asayish director Zeravan Baroshku who said security forces were acting on a “court order” but would not comment further. CPJ also contacted Erbil Asayish spokesperson Ashti Majeed for comment via messaging app and phone call, but didn’t receive any response.