Surge in harassment of journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan

Update on 20/09/2023: Authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have prolonged the sentence of freelance journalist Guhdar Zebari for a second time on the false accusation of having found a weapon at the house where he was arrested. The weapon, however, is a hunting rifle that belonged not to the journalist, but to his grandfather. Consequently, Zebari has initiated a new hunger strike at Asaiysh Gishti prison (the General Security Directorate), where he has been transferred on August 16th.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by a surge in press freedom violations in Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq where several journalists have just been arrested arbitrarily and freelance journalist Sherwan Sherwani’s jail term has just been extended.

Iraqi Kurdistan had until recently been relatively safe for media personnel but RSF has tallied around 20 arrests of journalists since the start of 2023. The events of the past few days are indicative of the escalation in violations.

“Using the letter relative to Sherwan Sherwani’s conditional release as grounds for sentencing him to another four years in prison was a cruel and vindictive way to punish a journalist who refuses to keep quiet, even behind bars. At the same time, the arrest of his colleague Omed Baroshki, and all the arbitrary arrests of other journalists and the circumstances in which they were carried out also undermine press freedom and constitute a threat to those outside who still express themselves freely. Such acts of intimidation must stop and Sherwan Sherwani and all other detained journalists must be released.

Jonathan Dagher
Head of RSF’s Middle East desk

The former editor of the monthly Bashur, Sherwan Sherwani was sentenced to an additional four years in prison by a court in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, on 20 July for allegedly imitating the signature of fellow detained journalist Guhdar Zebari in a letter relative to their conditional release in August 2022 . Zebari nonetheless testified to the court that he had agreed to his name being added to the letter while he was in solitary confinement.

RSF has learned that Zebari was himself the victim of a similar judicial ploy in March, when – just as he was about to be released – he was given an additional seven-month jail term for allegedly forging a vehicle brand three years ago.

The decision to sentence Sherwani to four more years in prison was denounced on camera the same day by freelance journalist Omed Baroshki, who said it had been personally ordered by Kurdistan’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani. Members of Kurdistan’s security forces, the Asayish, immediately arrested Baroshki at his home in Duhok. He was released the next day without being charged.

Sherwani was one of a total of four journalists – the others were Guhdar Zebari, Hariwan Issa, Ayaz Karam along with activist Shivan Saeed – who were arrested in 2020 and were referred to as the “Bahdinan prisoners” (after the name of a region in Iraqi Kurdistan).

Arrested in October 2020, Sherwani was given a six-year sentence on a spying charge although his crime was investigating corruption within Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling elite, including the Barzani family. He was to have been released in September after his sentence was reduced to three years by President Nechirvan Barzani, former President Massoud Barzani’s nephew.

When several journalists and NGO representatives gathered outside the courthouse in Duhok on 26 July with the aim of protesting against Sherwani’s additional jail sentence, members of the security forces intervened and prevented them from addressing the reporters who were there to cover the event.

Journalists with independent NRT TV, including Omed Chomani and Goran Abdul-Khaliq, were arrested the day before while covering a protest against water shortages by residents in one of Erbil’s districts. Murad Ahmed, another NRT TV reporter in Erbil, said his colleagues were taken away in a black car with no licence plate. They were transferred to downtown Erbil where they were questioned for several hours and then released.

167/ 180
Score : 32.94
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Updated on 27.07.2023