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September 29, 2021 - Updated on October 1, 2021

Call for release of five journalists held in Iraqi Kurdistan

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Metro Center, an Iraqi Kurdish NGO that defends journalists’ rights, call for the immediate release of five journalists detained in Iraqi Kurdistan, three of whom are on hunger strike in protest against the conditions in which they are being held.

The three freelance journalists on hunger strike are Sherwan Sherwani, Ayaz Karam and Guhdar Zebari. They have not eaten since 6 September, when they joined the hunger strike launched by most of the other so-called “82 prisoners of Dohuk” – the Kurdish activists, journalists and citizens arrested during protests in Dohuk, a city in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, in October 2020.


After many days without eating, concern is growing about the condition of some of the detainees, including Karam. According to local media outlets, he has not received appropriate medical attention after losing consciousness.


These three journalists were sentenced to six years in prison in February on spying charges. Sherwani said torture was used to extract their confessions.


A fourth detained journalists, Omed Baroshki, has just been given an additional one-year prison sentence on a charge of defaming the authorities in critical social media posts. Passed by a court in the city of Erbil on 23 September, this sentence has been added to the one-year sentence that Baroshki, who has been held since August 2020, received in June.


The fifth journalist is Roj News reporter Qahraman Shukri. Arrested in January after criticising the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities in social media posts, he was sentenced to seven years in prison in June without any specific charge being brought against him. He is the son of Shukri Zaynadin, a KNN television journalist killed in December 2016.


“We call on the Kurdistan authorities to release all currently detained journalists without delay,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “These reporters are being held on trumped-up charges and have been tortured to extract confessions. Now three of them have begun a dangerous hunger strike. These are all reasons why the judicial authorities should end their arbitrary detention.”


Also calling for the journalists’ release and for them to be guaranteed a safe environment, Metro Center executive director Diyaree Mohamed added: “Media sector workers pay a high price for their tireless insistence on covering events by means of words and images. The presence of journalists in prison and the excessive violence against protestors have negative effects on the reputation of democracy in the Kurdistan region.”


In response to RSF’s messages, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that "the convictions were not related to the defendants’ journalistic work". The KRG emphasized that "there is a clear split between the jurisdiction of the court and of the government", that it "respects the independence of the judiciary, committed to a coherent check-and-balance system" and "cannot interfere in the judicial process". The KRG also claimed that the Judicial Council is "fully committed to the rule of law, to a fair and impartial legal process".


On 26 July, RSF wrote to the KRG’s diplomatic representation in Paris requesting the immediate release of the three journalists convicted in February.


Iraq is ranked 163rd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.