(New York) - Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan who criticize the regional government have faced substantial violence, threats, and lawsuits in recent months, and some have fled the country, Human Rights Watch reported today.
Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government needs to ensure an independent and transparent inquiry into the killing of journalist Sardasht Osman in May 2010, that will lead to the identification and prosecution of all those responsible, Human Rights Watch said. An investigation by an anonymous committee appointed by President Masoud Barzani did not substantiate its findings, Human Rights Watch added.
"This secret investigation into Sardasht Osman's murder is exactly the opposite of what's needed," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Kurdistan government needs to get to the bottom of this killing with an open and independent inquiry that will include looking into allegations of government involvement."
The anonymous inquiry concluded that an Islamist armed group, Ansar al-Islam, was responsible for Osman's abduction and murder after he wrote articles criticizing government officials, including the regional government's president. The committee's 430-word statement did not substantiate its findings beyond referring to a confession from one of the alleged perpetrators. The identity of the committee members remains secret, and the committee did not interview Osman's family or those close to him. Since the release of the statement on September 15, Osman's family say they have been threatened by government forces and party members after speaking out against the committee's findings.
The Osman Killing and Related Threats
On May 4, 2010, assailants abducted Osman, a 23-year-old freelance journalist and student, at the entrance of his college in Arbil. His body was found a day later on a road near Mosul, with signs of torture and two bullets in the head. Friends and family believe Osman died because he criticized the region's two governing parties, their leaders, and the region's ingrained patronage system. A family member who saw his body said that he had been shot in the mouth, which he and other local Kurdish journalists told Human Rights Watch they interpreted as a message to the media to "be quiet."
In one satirical web article in December, which fellow journalists believe sealed his fate, Osman broke taboos in the region's conservative culture by referring to a female family member of Massoud Barzani, the regional government's president and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In the article, "I Am in Love with Barzani's Daughter," Osman pondered how he might rise from his poor surroundings by marrying one of Barzani's daughters.
Bashdar Osman, Sardasht Osman's brother, told Human Rights Watch that after the publication of that article, his brother received multiple threats by text message and telephone in early January from what the family believed were government or party security forces. The threats all referenced Sardasht Osman's recent writings and said that he "would pay" for his insults. Sardasht Osman "called the police chief of Arbil and provided the telephone number which threats were received from, but he refused to help," Bashdar Osman said. The police chief "only responded by saying Arbil was safe, and that no one could hurt him."
Bashdar Osman said his brother became more frightened as the weeks passed and became visibly rattled whenever he saw government or security vehicles.
"He thought he would be killed at any time by a gun with a silencer," Bashdar Osman said.
In his final article, Sardasht Osman wrote of his resignation to his own expected murder: "I am not afraid of death from torture. I'm here waiting for my appointment with my murderers. I am praying for the most tragic death possible, to match my tragic life."
Khellan Bakhtyar, a close friend of Osman who often co-wrote articles with him, said that Osman told him that he had been threatened with violence if he did not stop writing "disrespectful" articles. Bakhtyar said that Osman believed the threats were from government intelligence agents.
"It is crossing a red line to write about Barzani or his family," Bakhtyar told Human Rights Watch. "If you are not sued or arrested, something worse can happen."
In a recent book, Denise Natali, an academic at the American University in Sulaimaniyya and an expert on Kurdish nationalism, identity, and politics, wrote that journalists place themselves at risk in Kurdistan if they cross the "red line" by "criticizing the Barzani or Talibani families," or by reporting on the financial dealings of the government or its officials.
"Some journalists have disappeared, been arrested, or even been killed for crossing the red line," she wrote in her book The Kurdish Quasi-State, published in July 2010.
In the last collaboration between Osman and his friend Bakhtyar, they criticized a senior leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the region's other ruling party. Bakhtyar said that after Osman was murdered, Bakhtyar organized protests in his friend's honor.
"I was called by the Asayish [KRG's intelligence agency]," he told Human Rights Watch. "They told me: ‘You are playing a dangerous game. If you happen to be killed by someone, it is not our responsibility. We have warned you.'" Bakhtyar left Iraq in early September, and is applying for political asylum in Europe.
In response to Osman's murder, 75 Kurdish journalists, editors, and intellectuals issued a statement on May 6 that held the regional government responsible for his death. "This work is beyond the capability of one person or one small group," the statement said. "We believe the Kurdistan Regional Government and its security forces are responsible first and foremost and they are supposed to do everything in order to find this evil hand."
On May 10, hundreds of university students marched from the spot where Osman was abducted in Arbil to the regional parliament and unsuccessfully tried to storm the building, news media reported. Protesters accused government and security forces of Osman's murder and chanted, "Whose hands are stained with the blood of Sardasht?" Demonstrators carried a symbolic coffin with the Kurdish word for "freedom" written on the side.
Throughout the month, other demonstrations broke out in Iraq. At one such event in Baghdad on May 27, Human Rights Watch observed the crowd booing a KDP spokesman who tried to issue a statement on behalf of Barzani. Many of the demonstrators contended that the government was either directly or indirectly responsible for Osman's death.
While taking part in a protest in Sulaimaniyya in the days following Osman's murder, the editor of an influential magazine said that he received the chilling anonymous text message: "We will kill you like a dog."
Kamal Chomani, another journalist who wrote and translated several articles about Osman's death, told Human Rights Watch that he received an anonymous e-mail in August that read: "Give up what you are doing. If you don't think of yourself, then think about your parents. We can do whatever we want."
Secret, Incomplete Investigation
The September 15 announcement by the anonymous committee formed about four months ago by Barzani to investigate Osman's murder claimed that members of Ansar al-Islam, an armed group connected to Al Qaeda, killed Osman for not carrying out work for them he had promised to do. The committee statement said that a suspect had confessed, after interrogation, to delivering the bound and blindfolded Osman to Ansar al-Islam operatives in Mosul. No further details have been given as to whether this person will face criminal charges.
Ansar al-Islam denied responsibility for the killing. "If we kill or kidnap someone, we will announce it ourselves," the group said in a statement released on September 21. "We don't need anybody to lie for us."
The committee's allegation that Osman was connected to the extremist group has stirred anger in his family and others close to him.
"Sardasht was a secular, liberal man, not in any way an Islamic fundamentalist," Bakhtyar said. "His writing was about abuses of regional power and nepotism in the government, nothing Ansar al-Islam talks about."
Osman's family also criticized the investigation. "We were not even contacted once by this committee for their investigation," Bashdar Osman told Human Rights Watch. "We have no idea who they are." Others close to Osman who were familiar with his normal habits and whereabouts also expressed surprise that the committee did not ask them for information in the interest of solving his murder case.
Recently, after several comments by members of Osman's family critical of the investigation appeared in news reports, the family said it received several unofficial visits by people they do not know well, but whom they recognize as local members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party or its security force.
"A few days after the results were announced, they started coming to tell us to stop speaking out about Sardasht and against the investigation because they fear for our lives," one family member said. "It still happens, about every three days." The family member told Human Rights Watch that one visitor said, "If you keep talking about Sardasht, then you will end up like he did."
Multiple Threats Against Journalists
For several journalists who spoke to Human Rights Watch, Osman's murder was reminiscent of the July 2008 killing of Soran Mama-Hama, an investigative reporter with Livin magazine, who had also written articles critical of Kurdish authorities. He was assassinated outside his parents' home in a Kurdish-controlled section of Kirkuk. In one article, Mama-Hama had written about the suspected involvement of Kurdish officials, including police and security officials, in prostitution rings.
Livin magazine found itself in the center of another firestorm this August, after publishing an interview with a researcher who claimed to have evidence that Mustafa Barzani, Masoud Barzani's father, had betrayed another Kurdish leader in 1946. Four days later, on August 5, an opinion piece in Khabat, the official Kurdistan Democratic Party newspaper, which was cryptically attributed to an unnamed "youth group defending the sanctity of Kurdistan," encouraged violence against journalists who criticize the Kurdish leadership.
"Those who are responsible [for such criticism] must be abused and insulted," the article said. "We are ready to sacrifice our lives against those who do not know the borders of their freedom and the freedom of others." It ended with: "Today is the day of revenge and struggle... The day waits for the hot-blooded youths and their strong hands. We declare that those responsible must apologize to Kurdistan's revered figures, or pay the price of their behavior."
"For one of Kurdistan's main political parties to publish a blatant call to violence in its official newspaper is completely unacceptable and places journalists in direct physical danger," Stork said. "Those responsible for this incitement to violence should be prosecuted."
Livin's editorial director, Halgurd Samad, spoke with Human Rights Watch from Paris, where he fled to in September, fearing for his life. While organizing a demonstration in May protesting Osman's death, he received the following anonymous text message: "Halgurd, if you don't stop what you are doing, your fate will be the same as Sardasht Osman's."
Samad told Human Rights Watch, "Someone I knew who is in the Parastin [intelligence agency controlled by the KDP] warned me, secretly. He told me, ‘Parastin has decided to attack you, and are now planning how to do it and how to keep it hidden. If you do not leave Arbil, they may attack you in the next few days.'"
Human Rights Watch spoke with four other journalists who fled northern Iraq in the past year alone after receiving threats following critical articles about the two leading political parties. Two of the journalists feared retribution by government forces against family members they had left behind.
Defamation Claims Under Outdated Laws
Another impediment journalists face throughout Iraq is a rise in defamation claims for articles critical of politicians, political parties, or government officials. According to Ziad al-Ajili of the Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedom Observatory, officials in Iraq have filed at least 200 such lawsuits over the past two years. Notable among them is a $1 billion defamation suit brought by the Kurdistan Democratic Party against an opposition weekly after an article on July 20 accused the two leading parties of profiting from illegal oil smuggling to Iran.
Under a 2008 press law passed by the regional government, imprisonment is no longer a penalty for publication-related offenses, authorities can no longer shut down media organizations as a penalty, and there is a cap on the amount of damages the court can award. However, the law is not widely applied and courts have allowed several cases to be filed under the 1969 penal code, which provides for hefty fines and jail time. According to the Metro Center to Defend Journalists, an Iraqi press freedom watchdog focusing on northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party alone has filed more than 10 lawsuits in the past two months under the 1969 law.
Human Rights Law
Iraq's central and regional governments are obliged to respect the right to freedom of expression of all people under international law and Iraq's constitution. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iraq is party, guarantees all individuals the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."Article 38 of Iraq's Constitution guarantees "in a way that does not violate public order and morality" all means of freedom of expression as well as freedom of press, printing, advertisement, media, and publication.
Article 6 of the ICCPR requires all government bodies in Iraq to respect the right to life. This also means that law enforcement agencies should take reasonable steps to protect people who they know to have received serious threats to their lives, and that the authorities should ensure that all unlawful killings are investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted. Where there is suspicion of involvement in an unlawful death by state authorities, this should be publicly and independently investigated.
"The Osman case is the tip of the iceberg," Stork said. "The Kurdistan Regional Government needs to support press freedom instead of trying to intimidate those who report the truth. An independent and credible investigation of the Osman case would be a start."