Two European journalists researching Yazidis held for a month in Iraq

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arbitrary detention of two European journalists who were researching a story on the Yazidi community in northern Iraq and ended up being held for a month without any official charge. The Iraqi authorities must stop criminalising journalism, RSF says.

German journalist Marlene Förster and Slovenian journalist Matej Kavčič were finally released last week, one month after their arrest in northern Iraq’s Sinjar region (Shengal in Kurdish), the location of the main Yazidi Kurdish settlement, where they spent several months researching the conditions of the Yazidis since the Islamic State pogroms in 2014.

Förster and Kavčič were returning from Yazidi New Year (Çarşema Sor) celebrations when they were arrested at an Iraqi army post on 20 April. After being interrogated for several hours, they were transferred to Mosul, and from there to Baghdad two days later. 

After conducting an investigation, the Iraqi authorities concluded that they were indeed journalists and had no links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or any other armed group operating in the region. Although no official statement was issued, the Iraqi authorities cited “security measures and the expiry of their visas” as their grounds for holding them. 

After one month, during which they were completely cut off from the outside world, Förster and Kavčič were finally allowed to return to their respective countries and be reunited with their families on 20 May.

“We condemn the arbitrary detention of Marlène Förste and Matej Kavčič, who should never have been deprived of their freedom, and we are relieved that they have finally been able to return to their families after a month-long ordeal. We call on the Iraqi authorities to ensure that journalists are never again targeted in this way, but are able to do their jobs safely and without interference throughout the country,” said RSF’s Director of Operations and Campaigns, Rebecca Vincent.

An open letter to German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock that was the result of an initiative by Förster’s parents accused the Iraqi army of being “very brutal” when it arrested them, seizing “private belongings, including telephones, backpacks.” 

Following their arrest, the two journalists were denied access to legal and consular assistance. Förster was held in an isolation cell and it was only when she began a hunger strike that she was allowed to talk with the German consulate in Baghdad after eight days. Germany assumed responsibility for Matej’s consular protection under a European Union consular directive. 

The Iraqi authorities remained silent throughout their detention. Although no formal charge was brought against them, some Iraqi media outlets reported that the authorities were accusing them of “supporting and collaborating with the PKK.” Other media outlets said the two detainees “claimed to be journalists.” Their arrest came at a time of extreme tension, with an increase in Turkish and Iraqi raids in the region.

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