Violence between Iraq’s Kurdistan Region and the Iraqi government escalated after Kurds voted for independence in September. Yet despite their many differences, authorities on both sides have one thing in common – a fondness for attacking the media. In its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Iraq 158 out of 180 countries – and the past three days have made it clear why.
On December 17, the governor of Iraq’s Anbar province, Muhammad Rakkan al-Halbusi, reportedly ordered the independent TV satellite channel Al-Sharqiya to close its local offices. According to media reports, he cited a problem with the channel’s licensing as the reason for the closure – something the outlet denies having any problem with. The Committee to Protect Journalists said the governor's order came hours after the station published a report alleging the governor and other politicians were planning to rig Iraq’s parliamentary elections slated for May 2018.
And on the evening of December 19 in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, following protests against unpaid government salaries in parts of the region, Kurdish Asayish security forces forced independent media outlet NRT to take its three TV channels off the air. Asayish also forced NRT to evacuate their offices, and confiscated some of the outlet’s recording equipment. NRT’s head, Awat Ali, told Human Rights Watch that the forces said the Kurdish culture ministry had issued a decree to stop NRT’s broadcasting for a week. The decision cited coverage of the protests and alleged incitement to violence as the reason for the closure. Ali said they were simply reporting developments on the ground. Today, NRT’s websites were also taken offline.
Ali said that on the same day security forces at Sulaymaniyah airport arrested NRT’s founder, Shaswar Abdulwahid, who gave up the outlet a month ago, as he returned from a trip abroad. Abdulwahid’s family have received no news of him since. A court order calling for legal action against him indicates that he was detained for encouraging people to join the protests and attack government offices.
These latest examples highlight the peril facing journalists who report on Iraq in ways authorities dislike. Officials on both sides appear to have few qualms about suppressing the media, although a hands-off approach would give them a step up on their adversary both at home and abroad. They should commit to making space for the media – even when they do not like the coverage.