Iraqi Kurdish Asayish forces inspect lists of registered voters outside a school in Dohuk in October 2021. Journalists Sartip Qashqayi and Ibrahim Ali were held by Asayish forces after officers from the Kurdistan Special Counter-Terrorism group arrested them on October 9, 2022. (AFP/Ismael Adnan)

Two journalists arrested over criminal complaints in Iraqi Kurdistan

Beirut, October 12, 2022 – Iraqi Kurdistan authorities should immediately and unconditionally release journalists Sartip Qashqayi and Ibrahim Ali and refrain from detaining and arresting journalists because of their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On Sunday, October 9, officers from the Kurdistan Special Counter-Terrorism group arrested Qashqayi, the editor-in-chief of the privately owned agency Bwar News, and Ali, the senior editor of Bwar News, on the Sulaymaniyah-Erbil main road while the journalists were traveling to the capital Erbil from the eastern city of Sulaymaniyah after a reporting trip, according to news reports and statements from Bwar News and two local press freedom groups. The counter-terrorism group is affiliated with the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. 

The journalists were arrested after two criminal complaints were made against them, according to those sources. One of the complaints was made by the counter-terrorism group against both journalists, however, CPJ could not confirm further details about the complaint.

The other, a lawsuit, was filed by Awat Sheikh Janab, minister of finance and economy of the Kurdistan region, against Qashqayi, according to those sources. The lawsuit, filed on June 8, alleges that Qashqayi violated Article 2 of the penal code for misuse of communication devices after Bwar News published a report on Janab, according to an official at the Ministry of Finance and Economy for the Kurdistan region, who spoke to CPJ by phone on the condition of anonymity, saying they’re not allowed to comment publicly.

If convicted, the journalist faces a sentence of up to five years imprisonment and a fine between 1 and 5 million Iraqi dinars (US$685 and $3,425). 

The Bwar News report, published on April 28, alleged that two senior officials of the Kurdistan Democratic Party visited Janab at his home and threatened to “publish his secrets” if he didn’t end his boycott of meetings of Iraqi Kurdistan’s council of ministers after being blamed for the region’s financial crisis. The ministry official who declined to give their name told CPJ that the allegations are “totally baseless.” CPJ called Janab several times but did not receive any response.

“Iraqi Kurdistan authorities are making a very alarming habit out of detaining journalists,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Security forces must free Bwar News’ journalists immediately and stop arresting journalists for doing their jobs.”

The journalists stayed in solitary confinement for one night and were then transferred, on Monday, to Asayish security forces and moved to Asayish prison, according to a representative of Bwar News, who spoke to CPJ by phone but said they could not give their name because of company policy.

The journalists had not been informed of the complaints against them before their arrest, according to that source and Badriya Ismael, an Iraqi Kurdistan parliament member, who joined several others in visiting the journalists in prison on Monday and spoke to CPJ by phone. “Asayish authorities didn’t tell us anything about the nature of the complaints,” Ismael said, adding that the case is still under investigation and the journalists are in good health. 

CPJ emailed the office of the Kurdistan Special Counter-Terrorism group and called Yasin Sami, the spokesperson of Sulaymaniyah Asayish security forces, and Sarkawt Ahmed, the spokesperson of Sulaymaniyah police, but did not receive any responses.