Parties in ruling coalition agree to gag the press

Published on 5 May 2010

Reporters Without Borders believes that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two parties that control Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, have reached a “tacit strategic accord” to restrict the freedom of journalists as much as possible. “Anything goes for the KDP and the PUK as far as muzzling the press is concerned,” the press freedom organisation said.

The security forces operated by these two parties do not hesitate to use force to prevent journalists from covering street demonstrations. Media have been excluded from the Kurdish parliament by its speaker. The parties have managed to have journalists fired if they question their policies and the authorities often summon journalists for interrogation.

Many reports and op-ed pieces have been published in which Kurdish journalists and intellectuals are unanimous in voicing their concern about the current situation and their determination to defend press freedom.

Parliamentary speaker Kemal Kerkuki has been preventing journalists from entering parliament and filming its sessions. On 5 April, for example, police refused to let reporter Awara Hameed of the Movement for Change radio station, Gorran Radio, into the parliamentary chamber to cover the annual budget debate. Hameed said it was because he was an opposition journalist.

Any criticism severely punished

Kamal Rauf, the editor of the newspaper Hawlati, was summoned by the police on 28 April for publishing an article about the lack of services in a small town. After being interrogated for five hours, he was released on payment of 1 million dinars (652 euros) in bail.

Fuad Sadiq was fired as editor of the pro-KDP weekly Gullan for publishing a report in issue 774 in early April that criticised PUK member Barham Salih’s eight months as Kurdistan’s prime minister. A journalist told Reporters Without Borders: “Fuad’s dismissal was purely political. Barham Salih asked Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, who heads of the PDK, to fire him.”

Journalist, poet and judge Hakim Qubadi Jali Zada was relieved from his position as a judge in the city of Sulaymaniyah after writing an article criticising Kurdistan’s judicial system for issue 364 of the newspaper Hawal in February. On 18 March, he was forced to go and take a post as judge in Chamchamal, a town 80 km southwest of Sulaymaniyah.

Physical and verbal attacks

Journalists in Kurdistan are constantly exposed to both verbal and physical violence.

Several journalists were attacked and threatened while covering a student demonstration on 20 April, two days before Kurdish press freedom day. The victims included Soran Ahmed of Hawlati, Shkar Mu’tasam of Rojname (a Movement for Change newspaper), Aso Khalil of Jiyar Magazine and Hawzhin Ghareeb of the weekly Chatr. Mu’tasam was slapped in the face.

Police and members of the KDP and PUK security forces used violence against the journalists (mostly working for independent or opposition media) who went to cover a student protest against various Kurdish education ministry decisions on 17 April. Journalists said they were insulted and beaten and cameras were confiscated. “Four armed men leapt on me and beat me,” said Safin Ismael, a photographer for the daily Aso.

Three TV cameras were smashed. Reporter Wrya Hossein of the satellite TV station Payam said: “All we were doing was film the demonstration,” he said. “We do not understand what happened. They took our camera and smashed it with a baton.” The same thing happened to a crew with the Iranian satellite TV station Sahar. “The security forces were so violent,” said Sahar reporter Kamal Nuri. “They hit our cameraman, Srusht Sazan, and broke his camera.”

Crews working for the satellite TV station Speeda, the local TV station Azadi and the TV station Traitor was prevented from filming on the day of the protest. Azadi reporter Zryan Mohamed said: “This is the first time we such violence unleashed by the police and the security forces of the two political parties.”

Journalists were harassed during a visit by Prime Minister Salih to the province of Kalar on 15 April. Shukr Ahmed Tofiq of Azadi was insulted and slapped in the face by the prime minister’s bodyguards and his camera was broken.

The previous day, Omar Fars, the editor of the Kurdistannet news website, was attacked and prevented from taking photos in the town of Kalar (140 km west of Sulaymaniyah).

Both journalists and parliamentarians have called for an end to the impunity enjoyed by the KDP and PUK security forces. “There is nothing legal about these security forces – they belong to political parties,” said Zana Rauf, who represents the Movement for Change in the Kurdish parliament.

Referring to the Zaniyari (the PUK intelligence services) and the Parastn (the KDP protection services) by name, Rauf added: The Zaniyari and Parastn and the anti-riot forces are all illegal but there is no political will to change this stage of affairs.” Rahman Ghareeb, a freelance journalist and coordinator of the Metro Centre for the Protection Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan condemned these cases of violence on his organisation’s behalf.