RSF calls on authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan to release Qahraman Shukri and three other detained journalists.
Qahraman Shukri is finishing the first year of a seven-year sentence in prison in Iraqi Kurdistan, but on September 18 his mother wrote a letter to the region's president, appealing for his early release. Shukri is one of four journalists still detained in Iraqi Kurdistan. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on its regional government to free them all immediately, and to stop hounding journalists who work within its jurisdiction.
“If the Kurdish government really wants to portray itself as an authority that is concerned about the rule of law then it must start behaving like one,” RSF’s Middle East desk said. “We urge it to free Qahraman Shukri and the three other journalists it is holding, and to stop hounding media personnel.”
Qahraman Shukri’s mother, Khula Taha Ali, wrote to Iraqi Kurdistan’s president on 18 September asking him to quash her young son’s seven-year sentence. The Roj News reporter has been held in a prison in Duhok ever since the security forces of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) arrested him at his home in the town of Sheladiz on 27 January 2021. He was given the seven-year sentence in June 2021 without any specific charge being brought against him.
She sent her letter in the hope that there had been a change of attitude on the part of the Kurdish authorities following Iraqi Kurdish reporter Omed Baroshki’s release in February 2022 and the release of other imprisoned activists in June.
The three other independent journalists imprisoned in Iraqi Kurdistan have not been so lucky. Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari and Ayaz Karam are all still serving the six-year sentences on charges of “destabilising the Kurdistan region’s security and stability” that they received following their arrest in October 2020.
All three participated in a hunger strike in the prison in Erbil where they were being held. The hunger strike was launched by most of the other so-called “82 prisoners of Dohuk” – the Kurdish activists, journalists and citizens who were arrested during protests in the northern city of Dohuk in October 2020.
When contacted by RSF in September 2021, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said, “the convictions were not related to the defendants’ journalistic work.” But RSF’s sources affirm that the imprisonment of these journalists was a punishment for the articles they had written about KRG corruption and human rights violations. They had also covered the protests in Sheladiz against the military bases established there by Turkey, a strong ally of the KDP.
Sherwani had also investigated murders of Kurdish writers and journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991.
Shukri was arrested twice previously. His first arrest was on 27 June 2020 and the second was on 6 January 2021, when he was summoned by the security forces. According to sources close to Shukri, the authorities had asked him to stop investigating the death of his father, Shukri Zaynadin, a KNN television journalist killed in December 2016.
The KRG likes to portray itself as a democratic force in an otherwise authoritarian part of the world. In its response to RSF, it said that “there is a clear split between the jurisdiction of the court and of the government,” that the KRG “respects the independence of the judiciary, committed to a coherent check-and-balance system” and that it “cannot interfere in the judicial process.” It also said that Kurdistan’s Judicial Council is “fully committed to the rule of law, to a fair and impartial legal process.”
The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is indeed better than in neighbouring regions, according to RSF’s press freedom barometer, but it still falls far short of providing a safe and healthy environment for the free flow of information. Although the number of imprisoned journalists is relatively low, there has been an alarming increase in arrests of journalists for short periods, especially those working for media outlets critical of the government.
On 6 August, the security forces arrested KNN reporter Ayub Ali at his home in Erbil, and KNN cameraman Abdulwahab Ahmad, releasing them a few hours later. Three NRT reporters, Rzgar Kochar, Hersh Qadir and Omed Chomani, were arrested outside their TV channel’s bureau in Erbil and were held for six hours at police headquarters before being released.
The Asayish (Kurdish security forces) arrested Roj News reporters Brwa Asaad and Botan Garmyani and cameraman Mohammed Aziz in Sulaymaniyah on 17 September and held them overnight.