Independent and critical journalist in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) withstand numerous threats, including harassment, kidnapping, and assassination, due to reporting on unfavorable social realities or exposing corruption among the ruling elites.
Iraq and the IKR are two of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists; 190 journalists have been killed since 1992, tens of others are missing, have been harassed, or are being detained, according to the figures by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Following the first Gulf War and the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime forces from Kuwait in 1991, people in the IKR with the help of Kurdish Peshmerga forces had an uprising and toppled the regime in most areas, including Kirkuk. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established after the first parliamentary election; accordingly, two of the main Kurdish political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – rose to power. The ruling parties and the KRG authorities soon followed the Baath regime’s path in curbing and silencing activists and journalists who criticized human rights abuses and the corruption of the Kurdish governance.
Rauf Kamil, Editor-in-chief of Regay Ranjdaran newspaper, was the first journalist to be assassinated under the IKR reign, in front of his home in Akre on May 26, 1993. Since then, tens of journalists have been killed in the IKR amid wide impunity for perpetrators. Soran Mama Hama was killed in Kirkuk on July 21, 2008. Sardasht Othman was kidnapped in Erbil and later was found dead in Mosul on May 5, 2010. Kawa Ahmed Germyani was shot dead on December 5, 2013 in Kalar, south of Sulaymaniyah, and Wedat Hussein Ali was killed in Duhok on August 13, 2016. They all covered corruption cases involving the Kurdish authorities.
Most media companies in the IKR are run by the prominent political parties – either opposition or ruling – and their private sector companies. KDP and PUK have hundreds of media channels. They usually finance their media outlets by taking funds from the public budget or through partisan tycoons organized under private corporations.
The opposition parties have a few media outlets that are critical of the KRG, but their main focus is the fulfilment of their party’s agendas.
Considering the imminent risk that comes with the role, there are not many independent journalists or outlets that work in the IKR without succumbing to the pressures of the ruling parties.
Considering the imminent risk that comes with the role, there are not many independent journalists or outlets that work in the IKR without succumbing to the pressures and threats of the ruling parties. Another obstacle to developing free press is that independent media struggle to get sufficient funding or financial sponsors.
Media in the IKR has been regulated by press law Code 35 of 2007, which guarantees “press freedom,” meaning that journalists should not be arrested without court warrants, hindered from covering events, nor should media channels be shut down. The reality for independent press, however, is contrary to the liberties implied in the law.
“The KRG also uses its own laws to suppress free speech, including the local Press Law and Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment. That law authorizes imprisonment and fines for, among other things, misusing cell phones and email,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on June 15, 2020.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in its 2020 round-up, classified Iraq as a “high risk” country for journalists. According to statistics by the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate (KJS) – which is heavily influenced by the KDP and the PUK – there were 138 cases of law breaching by the KRG security forces in 2020. “Unfortunately, the figures are rising as compared to the previous years; and the types of law breaching have become more dangerous; this is concerning,” reads the report. 42 cases of detention, eight cases of beating, 32 cases of humiliation, and 47 cases of banning from coverage were recorded.
Imprisoned Kurdish journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani, Editor-in-Chief of Bashur magazine –known to be critical of the Kurdish authorities – has been held in solitary confinement since October 7, 2020. Sherwani was allegedly tortured by security forces in Erbil on “politically motivated charges,” his lawyer and wife told the writer of this column, in a report published on Al-Jazeera English on December 1, 2020. Human rights groups later upheld the allegations. The fate of Sherwani and tens of others detained, including teachers who simply asked for their delayed salaries, is still unknown.
Most of the harassment by authorities occurred while journalists attempted to cover public protests that broke out against the KRG’s strict lockdown measures to contain COVID-19.
Most of the harassment by authorities occurred while journalists attempted to cover public protests that broke out against the KRG’s strict lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, unpaid salaries, and the lack of basic services and job opportunities.
As a freelancer working with the international media, I (the author of this article) was detained by PUK’s counter-terrorism forces, in front of a building in the Sulaimaniyah province on December 11, 2020, while covering a demonstration live from my Facebook account. The heavily armored force freed me later after I showed them my journalistic ID, issued by the Kurdistan Journalist’s Syndicate (KJS). Yet, they forced me to delete all photos and videos that I had taken. They also took a photo of me, as to recognize me in the future should I be arrested again.
The security forces have since deployed US made military Humvees to curb demonstrations. They also used tear gas, and arrested dozens of protesters, activists, and other journalists. All the detainees were released after being held in custody for several days.
Upon a decree from the KRG Ministry of Culture, Kurdish security forces have shut down NRT – a popular broadcaster associated with the New Generation opposition party – in Sulaimaniyah for two weeks. Following a phone call by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the KRG PM Masrour Barzani, Pompeo said in a tweet, “We remain supportive of media freedom in Iraq….” Days after the phone call, Kurdish authorities permitted the NRT to reopen its offices in Erbil and Duhok provinces.
Upon a decree from the KRG Ministry of Culture, Kurdish security forces have shut down NRT – a popular broadcaster associated with the New Generation opposition party – for two weeks.
The channel’s offices in Erbil and Duhok provinces have been closed since August. The outlet is being accused by authorities of breaching broadcasting regulations and inciting people to violence through airing footages of clashes between security forces and protesters.
Managers of NRT dismissed those claims and stressed that the security forces have broken crucial transmission devices and stolen archive hard drives, inflicting damages of nearly US$1 million. Under the same claims, the ministry has also threatened to close Payam and Speda, two channels owned by Islamic opposition parties.
Surkew Muhammad, owner and Editor-in Chief of Peregraf, an independent outlet covering key regional events in Kurdish and English languages, told Inside Arabia that he sold his own car to launch the website in 2017. He has been beaten twice by KDP and PUK militias, after which he filed two lawsuits, to no avail.
“Our [funding] comes from publishing advertisements and . . . international organizations that support free press,” Muhammad said. “The markets have been dominated by companies owned by the political parties that rarely give advertisements to us.”
The Kurdistan regional parliament recently drafted a controversial bill for censoring digital media and social media platforms, but it has been put on hold due to widespread public pressure from civil rights advocates and social media users. A similar draft law on information technology crimes is now being discussed by the Iraqi parliament; HRW has cautioned that it could be used to “stifle free expression.”
As the political and economic crisis are expected to deepen in Iraq and the IKR amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the crack down on independent media will likely expand, unless the international community can manage to compel reluctant Kurdish and Iraqi officials to uphold the right to freedom of press in a war-torn and ever corrupt country.