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(New York) - Kurdistan regional government officials and security forces are carrying out a growing assault on the freedom of journalists to work in Iraqi Kurdistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Regional officials should stop repressing journalists through libel suits, beatings, detentions, and death threats, Human Rights Watch said.

Kurdistan authorities have repeatedly tried to silence Livin Magazine, one of Iraqi Kurdistan's leading independent publications, and other media. The international community should end its silence and condemn these widening attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Kurdistan Regional Government promised a new era of freedom for Iraqi Kurds, but it seems no more respectful of Kurdish rights to free speech than the government that preceded it," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "In a time when the Middle East is erupting in demands to end repression, the Kurdish authorities are trying to stifle and intimidate critical journalism."

On May 17, 2011, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional president Massud Barzani brought a defamation lawsuit against the Livin editor-in-chief, Ahmed Mira, for publishing an article about an alleged plot by the KDP and its ruling alliance partner, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to assassinate opposition leaders. According to court documents obtained by Human Rights Watch, the KDP is seeking total damages of one billion dinars (US$864,000) and an order to shut down the magazine by revoking its license.

The court documents say the party is suing Mira because the Livin article "not only has no basis in truth but is a threat to national security [and] a violation to the dignity and glory and the great achievements" of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Earlier in May, the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader, filed his own lawsuit over the same article. Mira told Human Rights Watch that, as a result, police detained him and a Livin reporter, Zhyar Mohammed, for five hours on May 5.

"Such libel suits by Kurdistan government officials are nothing more than a thinly-veiled effort to punish critics and create an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship," Whitson said. "The attacks by Barzani and his colleagues on independent journalists do more to undermine Kurdish ‘dignity' and ‘glory' than anything in the media reports."

A Livin reporter told Human Rights Watch that when he called Sheikh Jaffar Mustafa, Minister of Peshmerga (Kurdistan security forces), on April 24, Mustafa threatened Livin's editor, Mira, with death. The reporter had called Mustafa and taped the conversation because he wanted to get an official comment on an unrelated matter. The reporter said that Mustafa was upset over an unflattering article in the magazine that compared Mustafa to the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak. Mira said he decided to report the threat to the regional government's prime minister rather than make it public or go to the police, which he believed would be ineffectual and put him at further risk.

"Immediately after the death threat by Sheikh Jaffar Mustafa, I informed KRG Prime Minister Dr. Barham Salih and asked for his help," he said. "I have a recording of the threat and can prove it, but unfortunately, the prime minister has not made any efforts to investigate a death threat by a member of his own cabinet." Mira said that, as a result, he published an article about the death threat on May 7.

Human Rights Watch called on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to investigate the alleged death threats against Mira, and to remove Mustafa from his position and prosecute him in a court of law if the allegation is found to be substantiated

Livin, an independent magazine established in 2002 in Sulaimaniya that publishes three times a month, is widely circulated in Kurdistan and frequently publishes articles openly critical of the two ruling parties. Several of its writers have also been threatened or arrested or have fled the country. In 2008, Soran Mama-Hama, an investigative reporter with Livin, was assassinated outside his parents'' home in a Kurdish-controlled section of Kirkuk after writing about the suspected involvement of Kurdish officials in prostitution rings.

Kurdistan authorities have carried out a series of attacks on protest organizers and other journalists since quashing protests in Sulaimaniya on April 18. The threat of attacks and arrests has sent some into hiding.

In Sulaimaniya on the night of May 11, security forces detained and beat a Kurdistan News Network reporter, Bryar Namiq, breaking his hand. Namiq told Human Rights Watch on May 16:

After shots were fired near the parliament office, I went there to cover the incident and asked a patrol of PUK forces what had happened. Suddenly, six men in civilian clothes appeared and attacked me, took my mobile phone and camera, and brought me to the front of the house of a security director of the city. There, many security forces insulted me and beat me, and I heard one of them ask the officer if he could kill me. My head was covered and I was put into the back of a car and dumped in a different part of the city.

Two journalists, afraid to be named for fear of reprisal, told Human Rights Watch on May 18 that eight men in civilian clothes chased after them in late April in Arbil. The men appeared in two vehicles on the street just before the journalists were supposed to meet with a regional official who had asked for a meeting with some members of the media. The journalists believe that the men were plainclothes security forces who were aware of the meeting and were trying to kidnap them.

Soran Umar, a protest organizer and freelance journalist, has been in hiding since April 19. "I have not slept at home since then," he told Human Rights Watch on May 17. "My sin is that I am criticizing the undemocratic acts of KRG and the two ruling parties, that is all. The security forces have tried to kidnap me, and they have ordered my arrest. They even tried to kidnap my son."

A freelance photojournalist, Zmnako Ismail, who actively covered the Sulaimaniya demonstrations, is also in hiding. "I have been followed many times, and I am in danger of being arrested and beaten," he told Human rights Watch on May 14. "That's why I only travel in one taxi, with a driver I trust, and can't go to public places. My Facebook page and email accounts have also been hacked, and I cannot use them. This has happened to others involved in the demonstrations."

Another journalist who has written articles critical of the regional leadership and has received several anonymous threats told Human Rights Watch in late April, "Many of my Facebook friends told me that security forces called and threatened them, saying they had better take me off their Facebook ‘friend list,' and many of them have."

Since February 17, the local press freedom group, Metro Center to Defend Journalists, has documented more than 200 cases of attacks and harassment of Kurdish journalists, and Reporters Without Borders has tallied 44 physical attacks against media workers and outlets and 23 arrests.

"What kind of a future does the Kurdistan government promise for its people when it is stuck in the bad old ways of this region of beating and attacking journalists?" Whitson said. "Kurdistan leaders have a particularly strong duty to respect the rights and freedom of their people, given all they have suffered in past decades."

Human Rights Watch called on the international patrons of the KRG - particularly the United States and European countries - to condemn the blatant disregard for press freedoms by the regional government.

The US State Department, which has supported the rule of law and press freedoms throughout the country and which still has considerable influence, has been largely silent about the recent serious human rights violations against journalists and protesters. The fact that the United States led the multinational force effort to oust former president Saddam Hussein partly on grounds of his abuses against Kurds, shows a particular responsibility to ensure that Kurdistan regional officials respect the rights of its citizens, Human Rights Watch said.

"Eight years after the United States removed Saddam Hussein in the name of protecting the rights of Kurds, it is standing by silently as the government it helped to install in Kurdistan abuses and represses the population," Whitson said. "US President Obama noted in his speech on May 20 the flourishing democracy in Iraq, but the reality is that government-sponsored fear and repression continue to fester there."

A Climate of Fear for Kurdistan Journalists

Lawsuits Against Livin Magazine: Iraqi and Kurdistan Law
A rise in defamation claims for articles critical of politicians, political parties, or government officials is a main impediment facing journalists in Iraqi-Kurdistan, and Kurdish courts do not appear to be applying international and domestic guarantees of freedom of expression. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has previously filed similar suits, notably a US$1 billion defamation suit in 2010 against an opposition weekly after an article accused the two leading parties of profiting from illegal oil smuggling to Iran.

Osman Sdiq, lawyer for Livin Magazine's editor-in-chief, Ahmed Mira, told Human Rights Watch that the KDP defamation suit against Mira is likely to be filed under Iraq's 1951 civil code, which has no cap on the amount of damages that can be demanded or awarded, rather than under the 2008 regional press law passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government or the 1969 penal code.

The regional press law limits damages on publication-related offenses, caps penalties, and prevents authorities from shutting down media organizations. However, it is not widely applied, and courts have allowed several cases to be filed under the far more repressive Iraqi 1951 civil code and 1969 penal code.

Under the civil code, a person, including a journalist, can be held liable for "moral injury," which includes "any encroachment (assault) on the freedom, morality, honor, reputation, social standing, or financial position (credibility) of others." Under the penal code, which provides for hefty fines and jail time, it is a crime to "defame another" or "publicly insult" any public institution. The broadly worded provisions in both codes on the content of speech do not accord with international human rights protections for expression.

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.

International Law
International human rights law recognizes freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, essential both to the effective functioning of a democratic society and to individual human dignity. 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."

It is well established under international human rights law that politicians and other public figures are subject to, and must tolerate, wider and more intense scrutiny of their conduct. According to the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, restrictions on freedom of expression "shall not be used to protect the state and its officials from public opinion or criticism."

In 2000 the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression outlined a list of minimum requirements that civil defamation laws must satisfy to comply with article 19 of the ICCPR, so as not to improperly restrict freedom of expression. They include:

  • Sanctions for defamation should not be so large as to exert a chilling effect on freedom of opinion and expression and the right to seek, receive, and impart information ... and damage awards should be strictly proportionate to the actual harm caused;
  • Government bodies and public authorities should not be able to bring defamation suits;
  • Defamation laws should reflect the importance of open debate about matters of public interest and the principle that public figures are required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private citizens;
  • Where publications relate to matters of public interest, it is excessive to require truth in order to avoid liability for defamation; instead, it should be sufficient if the author has made reasonable efforts to ascertain the truth;
  • Where opinions are concerned, they should only qualify as defamatory if they are unreasonable, and defendants should never be required to prove the truth of opinions or value statements;
  • The burden of proof of all elements should be on the person claiming to have been defamed rather than on the defendant; and
  • A range of remedies should be available in addition to damage awards, including apology and/or correction.

Neither civil nor criminal defamation laws in Iraq fully meet the requirements of international law. Neither requires damages to be proportional to the actual harm caused; and they do not contain an exception for articles published in "good faith."

With regard to threats against journalists, 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.

Campaign of Repression
Security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its ruling parties have used repressive measures against journalists and demonstrators since the start of the daily protests in Sulaimaniya on February 17 over widespread corruption and greater civil and political rights.

In March, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 journalists in Kurdistan covering the protests and found that security forces and their proxies routinely repress journalists through threats, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and harassment, and by confiscating and destroying their equipment.

Journalists and protest organizers told Human Rights Watch that on April 18, security forces violently seized control of Sara Square, the center of daily protests in Sulaimaniya, and have prevented any more demonstrations.

On April 27, the KRG released a 19-page report into its investigation into the violence that occurred during the sixty days of demonstrations and found that violence was committed by both security forces and protesters, and that "the police and security forces were poorly trained in handling it appropriately." The report did not mention any of the violence directed toward journalists, including the vicious attack on the private Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) in Sulaimaniya. During that February 20th attack, dozens of armed men shot up broadcasting equipment, wounding a guard, and then doused the premises with gasoline and set fire to the building, according to the station's staff. NRT, which broadcast footage of the protests, had begun its inaugural broadcast only two days before the attack.

Anniversary of Sardasht Osman's Murder
A year after the killing of the Kurdish journalist Sardasht Osman, the KRG still has not held an independent and transparent inquiry to identify and prosecute those responsible.

Assailants abducted Sardasht Osman, a 23-year-old freelance journalist and student, on May 4, 2010. His body was found a day later, with signs of torture and two bullets in the head. Friends and family believe Osman died because his writing criticized the region's two governing parties, their leaders, and the region's ingrained patronage system.

An anonymous committee appointed by President Masoud Barzani released a report of its investigation on September 15, 2010, which concluded that an Islamist armed group, Ansar al-Islam, was responsible for Osman's abduction and murder. However, the committee's 430-word statement failed to substantiate its findings beyond referring to a confession from one of the alleged perpetrators.

Several of Osman's family, friends, and colleagues told Human Rights Watch at the time that none of the investigators had ever contacted them, and were highly critical of its conclusions. Since then, the regional government has made no announcements on any further investigations, arrests, or prosecutions related to the case.

On May 16, 2011, Osman's brother, Bashdar, told Human Rights Watch that he has received dozens of anonymous death threats in response to his own work as a journalist since the killing of Sardasht.

Human Rights Watch repeated its call for the KRG to establish an independent and transparent inquiry into Osman's killing that will lead to the identification and prosecution of all those responsible.

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