Journalists arrested to prevent coverage of Iraqi Kurdistan protests

After dozens of journalists were prevented from covering opposition protests in recent days in Iraqi Kurdistan and opposition TV broadcaster NRT was closed in Sulaymaniyah on 19 December, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Kurdish authorities and demonstrators to allow the media to freely report the news.

Members of the security forces have subjected dozens of journalists to violence and intimidation with the aim of preventing them from covering the demonstrations, which in some cases have been accompanied by bloodshed.

KNN television reporter Ari Luqman sustained a hand injury while covering a protest in Chamchamal, a city located between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, on 19 December. His cameraman, Hemn Ahmed, sustained an ankle injury that was inflicted by the security forces, and his equipment was smashed.

Many other cases of heavy-handed intimidation were reported. The victims included Choman Osman, a KNN reporter covering a demonstration in Halabja, a city in southeastern Iraqi Kurdistan, on 20 December.

Xendan news agency reporter Dana Sohpi Braim said a bodyguard hit him on the head when he asked one of the security chiefs of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for a comment about the situation in Ranya, a town in Sulaymaniyah province.

He said the members of the security forces arrested him in the street three days later and interrogated him for an entire day because they suspected him of being responsible for opposition pages on social networks.

Journalists threatened and arrested

Detention and interrogation have sometimes lasted several days. This was the case with Bahoz Nesradin, a reporter for TV broadcaster NRT’s website, who was held from 22 to 27 December in the city of Sulaymaniyah. NRT digital media director Suhaib Ahmed was arrested at Sulaymaniyah airport on the night of 24 December as he was about to fly to Baghdad.

NRT managing director Awat Ali says he has beenin hiding since NRT’s closure for fear of arrest. Dozens of other individuals, including politically engaged journalists, activists and human rights defenders, have also had to go into hiding.

Erbil-based NRT reporter Hersh Qader said six members of the Asayesh (security forces) stopped him as he was travelling to Sulaymaniyah for personal reasons on 21 December. After asking him to confirm that he worked for NRT, they insulted him, pointed their guns at him and ordered him to return to Erbil. One of them even hit him, according to a local NGO that defends journalists.

Although NRT’s journalists have been particularly targeted, they are not the only ones. For example, Ali Qader, a Roj News reporter based in Qaladiza (140 km north of Sulaymaniyah), was detained for several hours on 19 December.

“Covering protests is a right and should not be regarded as inciting violence,” RSF said. “On the contrary, the authorities should pay particular attention to the safety of journalists when they cover protests, as stated in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 25/38 of 2014. Furthermore, intimidating journalists by means of arrest campaigns or closing a TV broadcaster linked to the opposition undermines media pluralism, which is essential in a democracy.”

NRT’s closure

The Iraqi Kurdish authorities said NRT was being closed for seven days when they raided its headquarters in Sulaymaniyah on 19 December and suspended broadcasting by all of its channels (NRT1, NRT2 and NRT Arab). But the security forces confiscated all of its equipment, which suggests that the closure could continue for longer.

The authorities accuse NRT of encouraging the protests and the violence, while NRT disputes the legal basis for its closure. The authorities also shut down NRT’s website on 20 December.

NRT describes itself as independent but it has close links to the political opposition, which opposes the Kurdistan government’s current push for independence from Iraq. NRT’s founder, who left the NRT management a few months ago to form an opposition party called New Generation, was arrested at Sulaymaniyah airport as he returned to Kurdistan on 19 December and was held for a week.

Journalists also targeted by demonstrators

On 19 December, demonstrators in Ranya attacked and set fire to the buildings that house Raparin TV and two radio stations, Mashxalan and Yekgrtw. On the same day, demonstrators also set fire to the KNN bureau in Koy Sanjaq, a town 120 km northwest of Sulaymaniyah.

The headquarters of many parties, regardless of their political positions, were also the targets of angry protests. Stones were even thrown at Roj News reporter Hawkar Mustafa in Said Sadiq, a city 50 km southeast of Sulaymaniyah, on 18 December.

Attacks of this kind against journalists and media outlets recur from time to time and are exacerbated by national and regional tension, the security situation and economic problems. RSF has often had to condemn threats to journalists in its press releases.

Iraq is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 09.01.2018