Freedom of Speech Stands Trial in Iraqi Kurdistan

When Masrour Barzani was appointed the Prime Minister of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in July 2019, succeeding his cousin Nechirvan Barzani, many expected the beginning of a dark era for journalists and outspoken activists in the region given his infamous reputation for targeting critical voices during his 20 years of service as chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) feared intelligence agency.

Less than a year into his reign, the security forces affiliated with the KDP launched an unprecedented crackdown against journalists, activists, dissidents, and protesters. Dozens of them were illegally arrested and denied access to the most basic civil rights, such as access to lawyers and evidence to prepare a proper defence or to have their families visit them while in custody. At the moment, there are as many as 74 people behind bars who were arrested for participating in protests or criticising the government or the ruling political parties in media outlets or on social media.

To take one of the dozens of similar cases: On June 27, 2020, KDP-affiliated security forces arrested Qaraman Shukri, a 20-year-old journalist and photographer, at his house in Duhok governorate’s Shiladze town. He was released without any serious charges after spending 99 days behind bars. After he was released, Shukri revealed that he had faced awful torture in prison. “I spend the first 30 days in solitary confinement. They left me exposed to the sun for four days. They staged psychological warfare against me.” Security forces raided Shurki’s home once again on January 27, 2021, and rearrested him without disclosing any reason for Shukri’s arrest or presenting a warrant or any court papers to justify their actions. Shurki, who was awarded the Widad Award for Freedom of Expression in 2020, is still in jail, and his family has been denied visitation and basic information about his condition.

During the last fifteen years, at least five journalists have been murdered in the Kurdistan Region in relation to their work. None of the perpetrators has ever been brought to justice, despite the fact that most of the murderers were publicly known and had threatened the victims ahead of the killings. Thankfully, no journalist has been killed since 2016. Nevertheless, Kurdish authorities use harsh tactics to pressure independent and opposition journalists and curb freedom of speech. Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, languishes near the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for 2021, ranking 163rd out of 180 countries, down one place from last year’s index.

These recent convictions, along with the mass arrests and crackdowns on outspoken critics, have spread fear among journalists and ordinary people in the Kurdistan Region, especially in Duhok and Erbil governorates, where the KDP is most powerful.

Kurdish authorities employ broadly written laws to retaliate against journalists for their work and curb free speech. For example, even though Kurdistan Region has its own law for regulating the press, journalists are typically charged under the Communications Device Misuse Law, or Iraqi Penal Code’s articles 47, 48, and 49, which do not take into account a journalist’s status but merely treat them as a “social media consumer”! Recently, the Ministry of Youth and Culture used its authority to suspend opposition channels’ broadcasts for weeks in response to coverage of protests against the government. Even when the local security forces do not have authorisation from the ministry or the courts, they are still able to close media offices by force for months.

Retaliation against outspoken journalists using both legal and illegal means is something that journalists in the Kurdistan Region have been getting used to over the last three decades. Most of the time, journalists are harassed for short periods of time, but in February, the KRG took its tactics to a new level.

In a flawed trial, as characterised by the Human Rights Watch in a recent report, three journalists and two activists were sentenced to six years in prison for, as the accusation went, inciting protests against the government and destabilising the region. The ruling caused widespread outrage in the region and abroad. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the trial as not only unfair and disproportionate but also as proof “that the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government has finally dropped the pretense of caring about press freedom.” Amnesty International called the charges “trumped-up”, while the father of one of the journalists stated that his son “was writing about corruption [and] they didn’t like his writings.”

A week before the trial, Masrour Barzani accused the defendants of being “spies,” saying that they were destructive and armed and worked on behalf of other countries. The prime minister also claimed that “some of them have tried to blow up buildings and kill and abduct foreigners in the region,” without providing evidence to back his claims. Barzani’s comments were an apparent political intervention into the judicial process, which is supposed to be independent of the executive.

These recent convictions, along with the mass arrests and crackdowns on outspoken critics, have spread fear among journalists and ordinary people in the Kurdistan Region, especially in Duhok and Erbil governorates, where the KDP is most powerful. Citizens from Duhok frequently warn that pressure on the people not to criticise the party is on the rise; even on social media, they cannot share news about the people’s misery. Moreover, a number of journalists and activists have fled to the city of Sulaymaniyah, as Masrour Barzani and KDP’s powers do not extend to that city. The area is under the control and influence of the second biggest party in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq used to be called “the other Iraq” and seen as a haven to freedom of expression. However, the more Kurdish authorities profiting from oil money, the less they care about freedom of speech. The question is that do the authorities in Kurdistan listen to the local and international concerns about prosecuting journalists and suppressing freedom of speech, or they persevere their authoritarian approach towards outspoken critiques?

Renwar Najm

Renwar Najm is a journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan. He is a master’s student of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Kent.

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