Mounting tension between ruling parties and journalists
Reporters Without Borders
Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the tension between Kurdistan’s ruling parties and security forces, on the one hand, and its journalists and news media, on the other. Magazine editor Hemn Karim’s detention for more than 24 hours during the weekend and a spate of libel actions are the latest examples of this fraught climate.Reporters Without Borders takes the opportunity to remind Kurdistan’s journalists of the importance of respecting professional ethics and of distinguishing between reporting the facts and defamatory allegations.
Nonetheless, a wave of defamation suits seems to be eroding press freedom, especially as they often are being brought after the legally-permitted period has expired. Under Kurdistan’s press law, a legal action must be brought within 90 days but in most cases plaintiffs are not respecting the deadline and it is not being enforced by the courts.
Karim, the editor of the weekly magazine Fshar, was arrested after participating in a news conference in the Palace Hotel in Sulaymaniyah on 18 September. Ironically, its purpose was to condemn all the violations against journalists and to defend freedom of opinion and expression in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. He was released at around 10 p.m. on 19 September after paying 250,000 dinars in bail.
The police said he was arrested for failing to respond to a court summons. Karim denied this. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), sued Fshar for 500 million dinars in damages on 22 August.
Spate of lawsuits
The KDP sued four other publications on 22 August as well: Lvin Magazine, Awene, Hawlati and Rega. Awene is being sued for 500 million dinars in damages over an article in issue 214 on 9 March headlined “Opposition parties say Erbil is no exception as regards electoral fraud” and a column by Aziz Rauf in the same issue headlined “President, you are complicating things,” which questioned whether Massoud Barzani should continue to be KRG president.
The other three magazines are being sued over articles suggesting that the KDP or Barzani himself was involved in last May’s murder of journalist Sardasht Osman. Lvin Magazine is being sued for 500 million dinars for suggesting this in issues 126 and 127 (on 10 and 20 May). Hawlati is being sued in connection with articles in issue 611 (pages 1 to 5 and 16). Rega is being sued for 1 billion dinars over a story headlined “KDP regarded as Sardasht’s murderer” on pages 7-11 of issue 16 (published in May).
Awene editor Shwan Muhammad and Hawlati editor Kamal Rauf appeared in court in Erbil on 19 September in connection with these lawsuits. The court rejected their request for their cases to be transferred from Erbil, the KRG capital, to Sulaymaniyah. They have decided to appeal against this ruling.
The KDP also sued the weekly Rojname for 1 billion dollars in damages on 25 July over a report accusing the KDP and its main coalition partner, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), of involvement in smuggling petroleum products to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The KDP also demanded the weekly’s closure.
When the trial opened on 8 August in Erbil, Rojname’s lawyers asked for the case to be heard in Sulaymaniyah instead of Erbil. The court was supposed to issue its ruling on this request on 23 August but has not yet done so.
Reporters Without Borders points out that journalists are also forbidden to film inside the KRG parliament in Erbil.
Ansar Al-Islam denies murdering Sardasht Osman
The radical Islamist group Ansar Al-Islam has meanwhile denied any role in Sardasht Osman’s murder. The denial was issued in response to the communiqué released on 15 September by President Barzani’s commission of enquiry accusing Ansar Al-Islam of killing Osman.
“Sardasht had no link with us and we are not linked to his murder,” the Ansar Al-Islam statement said. “All this is nothing but a lie (...) We have a duty to shed the blood of the enemies of God such as the American forces and their agents in the KDP and PUK. God will be grateful to us for this. But we did not kill Sardasht. When we kill someone, we proudly claim responsibility.”
Osman’s brother, Hajar Osman, has resigned from his position as lieutenant in charge of checkpoints in the Erbil region in protest against the commission of enquiry’s allegations.