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A woman holds up a banner during an anti-government protest in Baghdad in February 2020 saying "The pen is our weapon, the book is our shield, the thought is our power."  (c) 2020 REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Over the four years that I have monitored human rights in Iraq, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials have often touted their superiority to the central government in Baghdad in respecting human rights. When I have met in Erbil with regional officials to present our research on abuses in the Kurdistan region, they often acknowledge shortcomings by “individual” government employees but always note that the situation is better than in Baghdad-controlled territories. But as our recent findings show, that apparently does not include the rights to criticize the government.

Like authorities in Baghdad, KRG authorities routinely use vaguely-worded penal code defamation and incitement provisions drafted decades ago to bring criminal charges for expression of opinions they object to. These include crimes as vague as “insult[ing] the Arab community” or any government official, regardless of whether a statement is true or not.

On June 15, Human Rights Watch published a report – titled ‘We might call you in at any time’: Free Speech under Threat in Iraq’ – which documents the state of free speech in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan region. A few examples from the report demonstrate that KRG authorities are not abiding by their obligation to respect free speech.

Badal Abu Baker, a schoolteacher in Dohuk, told us that on the afternoon of January 27, 2019, Asayish officers arrested him, alleging that he had participated a protest in in the town of Shiladze, 100 kilometers northeast of Dohuk, the day before. The officers accused him of “working against the government” and told him to “leave the Kurdistan Region if you are not happy.”

They charged him under article 156 of the Penal Code, which is also in place in the Kurdistan Region, which criminalizes violating “the independence of the state or its unity” or national security, even though he insisted he had not attended the protest. They forced him to promise in writing not to engage in any “anti-government political activity” and detained him for three weeks before releasing him. The charges are still pending as far as he knows.

The KRG also uses its own laws to suppress free speech, including the local Press Law and Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment. That law authorizes imprisonment and fines for, among other things, misusing cell phones and email – or more broadly, the internet – to threaten someone, use profanities, spread misinformation, share images counter to public values, or share private information, even if that information is true.

Rebwar Kakai, the Erbil office director for NRT News, a local radio and TV outlet, said that on January 16, 2019, police arrested him for a report NRT had broadcast in September 2018 on corruption allegations linked to two pharmaceutical companies owned by senior Kurdish political figures. The authorities charged him under the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment, based on a complaint by the owner of one of the companies. A judge acquitted him, but later the public prosecutor brought the same charges against another colleague at NRT News for the same report.

“Ibrahim,” who asked us to withhold his name, told Human Rights Watch he live-streamed the demonstration in the town of Shiladze on the morning of January 26, 2019, where people were protesting Turkish airstrikes that reportedly killed at least six civilians the previous week. The authorities arrested and charged him under the Penal Code for attending the demonstration charges – which a judge dismissed – as well as a charge under the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment, for filming the protest on his phone without “permission.” That charge is pending, and prosecutors never clarified at trial from whom Ibrahim should have obtained permission despite requests from the defendant.

Amanj Bakir, a journalist, said that in November 2019 Asayish officers arrested and held him for a day without charge because of an article he wrote about Turkish airstrikes in the Kurdistan Region. They released him only after forcing him to sign a document promising not to write further about the airstrikes. Later that month, he said, the Asayish detained him for another day without charge. “During the interrogation they said they had arrested me because I continued to write about Turkish military operations in Kurdistan even though they had told me to stop,” he said.

On March 6, 2020, Bakir posted an article on Facebook about growing tensions between the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), but took it down after an anonymous caller phoned his uncle and said, “If Amanj doesn’t stop talking about this topic, he will be disappeared.” On March 19, the day after he published an article about alleged Turkish plans to establish a new military outpost in the Kurdistan Region, he received a call from an unknown number, and a the caller told him, “You had been warned in the past and your time is running out. We will find a solution for you.”

Goran Daibky, the lawyer for freelance journalist Hemin Mamand, told Human Rights Watch that on March 23, Mamand posted on Facebook that if COVID-19-related lockdown measures in place at the time persisted and the KRG continued to withhold salaries from public servants, people would most likely break the rules. The next day, police officers arrested Mamand and detained him for 13 days. They released him but arrested him again a day later, on April 5, after he posted on Facebook that the police who arrested him on March 24 did not present an arrest warrant or identify themselves. Authorities charged him under the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment for encouraging people to break the lockdown and for defaming the police under article 433 of the Penal Code. The authorities released him on April 26, pending charges.

There are just a few of the numerous cases of journalists and others accused of speaking out who have been killed, detained and threatened in the Kurdistan Region over the years. These incidents prove that the KRG authorities – like their counterparts in Baghdad – have restricted free expression in ways that chill public discussion and debate. If the KRG really wants to set itself apart, the authorities need to stop arresting and prosecuting those they disagree with and start listening to them instead.

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