Suppression of the Press in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

6/3/2017 9:30:00 AM
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Huner Anwer
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Suppression of the Press in Kurdistan has been widespread since the inception of the young regional government, despite constitutional and parliamentary provisions providing for the protection of the press and freedom of expression. One media company, the only independent media source in The Kurdish Region of Iraq, has undergone extreme persecution, including violent suppression, targeted attacks by security forces, assassination attempts on leadership and many other forms of violent and illegal subversion intended to silence free speech and reporting on government issues.

Nalia Radio and Television also known as NRT was founded in February of 2011, during demonstrations by the Kurdish people against the Kurdish Regional Government during the Arab spring, for 63 days demonstrators peacefully protested with the goal of reform for economic policies. NRT was formed by a collection of independent journalists combining their skills and resources to cover the events. It fomented into a international press operation, headquartered out of Sulaimani, Iraq. Three days after its founding it’s newly built headquarters were firebombed, the investigation was stalled, and no perpetrators were ever prosecuted. It is widely speculated that the attack was executed by the Regional Government itself. The Government was ordered to pay for damages, by the Kurdish parliament, to NRT, the payment was never received. In spite of this conspicuous early attempt quash free press, NRT continued to broadcast. Unfortunately this was only the first of multifarious malevolent attempts to combat freedom of speech. Two years later on October 26, 2013 a perpetrator attempted to assassinate Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir the owner and founder of Nalia Media Corporation. He survived the attack, but the his injuries left him permanently wounded and susceptible to cancer due to the use of irradiated ammunition. No one has yet been charged with the crime.

These oppressive circumstances continued to occur, and are so numerous, abridgement is necessary, as such only some incidents are enumerated in the latter from the previous year.

● On January 20, 2016 Mr. Omar Fatah, a correspondent with NRT TV, and his team was attacked by security forces who confiscated his equipment, while covering a demonstration in Said Sadiq- Sulaimani
● On March 5, 2016 Mr. Abdullah a correspondent with NRT TV, and his team were prevented from doing a live broadcast in Rania – Sulaimani next to the Monument dedicated to the 1991 uprising in Kurdistan.
● On April 2. 2016 Mr. Ala Hushiar a correspondent with NRT TV, and his team, was attacked by security forces in the Rahimawa neighborhood in Kerkuk. And their equipment was damaged.
● On April 14, 2016 Mr. Rizgar Jabbar a correspondent with NRT TV, and his team, in Chamchamal was prevented from doing his work and held captive for an hour.
● On April 29, 2016, Mr. Karzan Aziz a cameraman with NRT TV in Erbil was attacked and his equipment was confiscated.
● On hree separate occasions April 3, April 12, and September 27, 2016 Mr. Herish Qadir an NRT TV correspondent and his team were attacked during live coverage of one of many demonstrations taking place throughout the region to protest the austerity measures of the Kurdish Regional Government.

In 2007 the Parliament passed the Press Law, also known as the Journalistic Work Law which guaranteed the public the right of access to government information in mid 2013, however there is no regard for these laws by the courts or the security forces. The Journalistic Work Law and Freedom of Information Law were both passed by Parliament in order to assist journalists in making the workings of the government transparent to the people whom the government represents and aids. However, these laws are not uniformly enforced, and thus, meaningless. Impartial criticism of government officials by the press enables them to improve their performance. The infringement of freedom of speech and persecution of the free media has become status quo.

In late 2016 NRT reported on irregularities in the energy and oil sectors. During the first six months of 2016 the Ministry of Natural Resources misappropriated 36,000,000 gallons of oil worth more than 1.2 billion dollars and did not report it as a lost on their monthly reports. No one has been charged with this lost. Austerity measures were instituted, due to the unreported loss.

In May of this year, 2017, NRT correspondent Aram Bakhtyar was arrested and detained, charged with defaming the Kirkuk-Garmyan court as well as the court head and the prosecutor of the region. He had been reporting on sentencing imposed on a government employee who had not received payment for his work from the Regional Government, due to a desperate economy created by corruption, this employee was forced by economic circumstance to steal milk and diapers for his infant, and was sentenced to eleven years in prison, despite the shopkeepers dropping all charges.

The same day Mr Bakhtyar was arrested, an arrest warrant was issued for NRT director Awat Ali. Mr. Ali was vacationing in Sweden when the arrest order was issued, he has returned to Kurdistan, NRT and its staff have always sought to abide by the laws of the Kurdistan Region and are ready to appear in court when called, as such Mr Ali will be surrendering himself this coming Sunday morning, the fates of these journalists are yet undecided.

A judge from the criminal court, Judge Akram Faraj filed for a personal defamation suit, in response to the reporting by Bakhtyar on sentencing. No felony charges were filed, or alleged, only misdemeanor defamation charges, the self-same judge also approved an arrest warrant for Ali and Bakhtyar, On May 24th, 2017 Faraj violated the Law of Journalism and approved the extension of the term of Bakhtyar’s detention, ruling on his own defamation case. The law specifies that no arrests should be issued for journalists based on their reporting. NRT has filed for bail three times on May 28th, 29 and 30th. In Kurdistan bail may only be denied in felony criminal charges. In direct violation of the legal system, bail has been denied in each case, each time by Faraj himself, the plaintiff of the case, has ruled, on based on his own interests, on his own case. In addition, the Kurdistan Region’s authorities, including the Minister of Justice, have chosen to keep quiet about these violations against NRT and its staff.

NRT, it’s leadership, employees, friends, family and related sides, call upon domestic and international organizations for human rights and freedom of expression as well as international representatives and consuls in the Kurdistan Region to respond to the oppression executed against NRT and its staff, and the family of it’s staff. We ask them to work toward this case to pursue a legal path so that the Kurdistan Region’s laws are carried out and that Mr. Bakhtyar be released, and all charges be dropped against both Bakhtyar and Ali .

We request that members of human rights organizations, members of Congress, the State department, and White House, call the KRG and demand the release of Bakhtyar and the charges against Ali be dropped and that there be respect for the journalism laws passed by the parliament itself.

For members of the US public, talk to your congressmen about this issue and request that they contact the KRG office in DC and advocate for freedom of the press by calling the KRG office in Washington, DC. http://www.house.gov/representatives/