Joint Statement: Stop violations against journalists in the Kurdistan region of Iraq

May 3, 2021

On the International Day for Freedom of the Press on May 3, the undersigned organizations call on the authorities of the Kurdistan region of Iraq to stop their continuous violations of the freedom of the press, lift restrictions imposed on journalistic work; to end their campaigns on the prosecution and detention of journalists for their legitimate work, open a serious investigation into the death of a journalist who was covering the popular demonstrations in August 2020, and bring all those responsible to justice.

The undersigned organizations express their concern about the regional authorities' insistence on prosecuting journalists on charges related to their journalistic work and continued disregard for relevant local and international laws required to guarantee freedom of  press, opinion, expression and publication.

On February 15, 2021, journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Ghadar Zebari and Ayaz Karam appeared before the Erbil Criminal Court on charges of "undermining national security." The next day, the court sentenced them to a 6-year-imprisonment on trumped-up charges, such as spying for foreign countries and trying to destabilize security and stability and discredit the region. The three journalists were arrested in October 2020 after their significant interaction with the widespread protests that   demanded improvement of economic and living conditions caught the authorities attention.

In December 2020, the authorities of the Kurdistan region in  Iraq arrested at least five journalists for covering the widespread protests. They banned the broadcasting NRT channel temporarily for the same reason after the security forces "Asayish" stormed the headquarters of the channel and destroyed and looted its contents.

In August 2020, journalist Honer Rasul was killed while covering the popular protests in the city of Rania in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate. The official authorities attributed the cause of his death to a heart attack and ignored any urges of opening a transparent investigation into the incident.

The targeting of journalists and prying into civilian activity in the Kurdistan region of Iraq  are  a part of the authorities' attempts to weaken the popular movement and restrict media coverage on the demonstrations that demanded economic reforms and improvement of living conditions for  the population in the oil region.

According to the sequence of events in the region and the analysis of the authorities' hostile behaviour towards journalists, it appears that the authorities do not show any respect for the Iraqi law, local legal directives, or the international law regarding the freedom of  press.

The 2007 Kurdistan Press Law guarantees freedom in journalistic work. Article (2) of the law stipulates that "the press is free and has no censorship, and freedom of expression and publication is guaranteed to every citizen in a respectful framework." It also guarantees "the journalist to obtain information of interest to citizens and related to the public interest from its various sources, under the law."

The same law criminalizes assaults made on journalists, stating that "whoever insults or assaults a journalist because of their work shall be punished with the penalties prescribed for whoever assaults an employee during or because of the performance of their duties." It also stresses that "it is not permissible to investigate the journalist or search their workplace or residence (...) except by a judicial decision, and the captain or their legal representative may be present in the investigation."

With the absence of accountability and continued impunity, it does not seem that the authorities of the Kurdistan region - Iraq will stop their violations of journalists' rights, which threatens to expand and escalate violations against them in the future. To prevent this dangerous development, action is needed to protect the freedom of journalism in the region. 

Signatories:

Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, MENA Rights Group, Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq, HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement (HUMENA Regional), SAM for Rights and Liberties, Iraqi War Crimes Documentation Center, AFD International, Human Rights Solidarity, International Academy for Rights and Development- Paris, The International Institute for Rights and Development –Geneva (IRD–Geneva)

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