Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Human Rights Watch: Iraq’s Kurdistan Limiting Freedom Of the Press And Speech

Human Rights Watch recently released a report on abuses that occurred in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2012. It noted that the authorities were carrying out arbitrary arrests and harassing journalists and critics of the government. When officials were interviewed about these cases they said that the charges against the KRG were either made-up or lies perpetrated by the press. One said that the KRG had to work outside of the law to deal with increasing pressure from the public and media. This followed a report by Human Rights Watch that found the same practices happening in the rest of the country. Kurdistan likes to call itself “the other Iraq,” but Human Rights Watch found that it is much like Baghdad when it comes to dealing with dissenters.

Media that have questioned the Kurdish government have faced harassment. There have been arbitrary arrests without warrants, detentions for long periods, and defamation lawsuits filed against them. The authorities issued orders to follow the June 2012 Draft Law to Protect Sanctities, which would make insults against religious and national symbols illegal, even thought it has not bee passed by the regional parliament. A KRG foreign relations official told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the government had to act outside the law, because it was facing new pressures from the public and the press. The fact that many of these people were demanding that the KRG be held accountable didn’t seem to stop it from using extrajudicial methods to silence them. The ruling parties have been in power since the 1990s, and have shown little patience for those that question their rule. The treatment of reporters is a perfect example of that.

Kurdistan Journalists Association’s press conference reporting violations against the press in the first half of 2012 (Shafaq News)

Human Rights Watch documented several specific cases of members of the media and critics being harassed and arrested by the security forces. In April 2012, the editor of Bashour magazine was arrested after published two articles criticizing officials. One piece said that public workers stole 206 million dinars, and another said that the brother of President Massoud Barzani received $2 million in a business deal. The editor was held for three days, released, then picked up again by soldiers, and held for three additional days. He is now facing defamation charges. The director of KNN TV was arrested for broadcasting a piece in June 2012, which interviewed public employees who charged members of the Irbil provincial council of stealing money. The director was later convicted of insulting a council member in October, and charged a $1,300 fine. Anonymous people told him that it he had apologized to the politicians the charges would have been dropped. A lawyer said that he was arrested, and held for six days in Chamchamal in October 2012 after he wrote an article accusing judges of being loyal to the ruling parties. He was told that a judge accused him of defamation, but he was never charged with that crime, and eventually released. That was just a fraction of the 50 cases that were recorded by HRW for 2012. It was supported by Kurdish organization as well that have found similar abuses. The Kurdistan Journalists Association in Irbil for example, reported 43 violations against journalists in the first half of 2012 alone, including 22 attacks upon reporters, seven assaults, four being threatened with death, and two cases of fines. The Metro Center for Defending Journalists recorded over 100 complaints such as 50 arrests, 34 cases of equipment being seized, 21 assaults, and five reporters being killed during 2012. Kurdistan has laws that protect the right of journalists to report stories about the government as long as they are supported by evidence. As these cases show, this legislation is often ignored. In fact, the attitude of the authorities is that these stories are an affront to their public standing. In talks with Human Rights Watch for example, various officials said that they would not stand for any accusations of corruption against the ruling parties, that these stories were “violating the human rights of the government,” and that the articles were all based upon lies. It’s those feelings that lead to reporters and others being picked up and detained or sued in Kurdistan.

Human Rights Watch also found cases of the KRG limiting protests. On February 17, 2012, hundreds of security forces surrounded around 150-200 people in Sulaymaniya City who were attempting to commemorate the 2011 protests that occurred there. The security forces beat up the activists, as well as reporters trying to cover the event. Two journalists were arrested as well. The police continued to crackdown on both demonstrators and reporters who attempted to mark the anniversary for the rest of the month. People originally began assembling in Sulaymaniya in 2011 to protest against the monopolization of power and corruption of the ruling parties. They lasted for several months. The government gave lip service to their demands, but in the end resorted to force to break them up. This showed that the Kurdish parties were not only unwilling to carry out any meaningful reforms, but would not stand for people who publicly questioned their rule either. Like with the media, the security forces were used against those that decided to speak out.

Finally, there was the case of Akram Abdul Karim, a former customs officer who accused leading officials of theft. In November 2011, Karim told Livin Press that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was confiscating many of the custom fees collected at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing with Turkey. He later told Naliya TV that the money was going to KRG Premier Nechirvan Barzani. As a result, Karim was arrested, beaten, and denied a lawyer for up to three weeks. He was later charged with violating national security, because he talked about classified material. Karim is still being held in Dohuk with no court date set for his case. Rather than investigating Karim’s stories, the police decided to arrest him, beat him, and still holds him to this day. Again, the government proved uninterested in questions about how it ran the region, and decided to muzzle a critic instead.

Kurdistan might be more peaceful and stable than the rest of Iraq, but the way it deals with the media and dissenters is the same as the central government. Neither takes criticism well, and readily uses the security forces against those that question them. That shows that rule of law is weak, and the politicization of the police and armed forces. Iraq does have a large number of media outlets, something that is new to the country after decades of dictatorial rule. At the same time, the country is one of the most corrupt in the world. That provides a plethora of stories to report and protest about. The problem is anyone that chooses to do so faces the risk of raising the ire of the elite, and could be arrested, beaten, and held for long periods in retaliation. Until Iraq’s political parties understand that they have to respect those that differ in opinion, and that accountability is part of good governance, these abuses will continue.


Ahmed, Hevidar, “Kurdistan’s Border Revenue Scandal,” Rudaw, 12/1/11

Human Rights Watch, “Iraqi Kurdistan: Free Speech Under Attack; Government Critics, Journalists Arbitrarily Detained, Prosecuted for Criticizing,” 2/10/13

Kurdistan Tribune, “”Border point taxes are pocketed by KDP deputies” claims ex-security boss,” 11/27/11

Saifaddin, Dilshad, “Two journalists arrested in Sulaimaniya,” AK News, 2/17/12

Shafaq News, “43 cases of violation against journalists in Kurdistan,” 7/17/12

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