Three jailed reporters charged with “undermining national security”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of five journalists arrested during the past six months in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, three of whom appeared in court for the first time today and were accused of “undermining national security,” a charge carrying a possible life sentence.

Update (February, 16th 2021): the three independent journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari and Ayaz Karam were found guilty of "undermining national security" and sentenced to six years in prison by the Erbil Criminal Court on Tuesday February, 16th. Sherwan Sherwani is notably accused of having worked for Iran.

Brought before a court in the regional capital, Erbil, the three freelance journalists are victims of a wave of arrests carried out by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in response to a series of major protests in recent months against its handling of the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sherwan Sherwani was arrested on 7 October while Guhdar Zebari and Ayaz Karam were arrested on 22 October after social media posts echoing protesters’ demands and complaints, including complaints about delays in paying the salaries of state employees and allegations of government corruption. 

During a press conference on 10 February, the KRG referred to the situation of journalists and activists who have been jailed in recent months. Without naming anyone, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said “some individuals were agents for foreign intelligence services” and others “were armed and were plotting to blow up buildings and attack foreign citizens” – crimes punishable by life imprisonment.

In the same press conference, Barzani said the KRG “supports journalism and the rights of journalists in all forms” and but warned that the authorities needed to prevent “illicit activities carried out under the banner of journalism.”

“We call on the Kurdistan Regional Government to release the reporters and drop the charges against them,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “If the KRG claims to support journalists and respect their rights, it must consent to letting them cover public interest issues, including those journalists who are the most critical of its current policies, and especially at the current moment, which is crucial because of the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

In November, RSF and the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group (MRG) asked UN human rights experts to do everything possible to obtain Sherwan Sherwani’s release and to investigate his enforced disappearance for the first 19 days after his arrest on 7 October and the torture to which he has reportedly been subjected.

Two other journalists are currently detained in Iraqi Kurdistan. Omed Baroshki was arrested on 18 August and Qahraman Shukri was arrested from home on 27 January on grounds that are not yet known, after criticizing online the political repression carried out by the KRG. Qahraman Shukri is the son of Shukri Zaynadin, a journalist who died in still unexplained circumstances in late 2016. His son insists he was the victim of a “political murder.”

Iraq is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 16.02.2021