Last Updated: Friday, 22 August 2014, 15:07 GMT

Ruling party threat to press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 10 August 2010
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Ruling party threat to press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan, 10 August 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c64f1271e.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is headed by the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, has been waging a hate campaign for the past week against Lvin Magazine, accusing it of besmirching the memory of Barzani's father, the late Kurdish nationalist leader Mullah Mostafa Barzani.

The KDP's supporters are on the warpath and are threatening all sorts of terrible things if they do not get a public apology. The KDP has also brought a libel action against Rojname, an opposition weekly, over an article accusing the party of corruption.

"Both of these cases pose a very disturbing threat to press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan," Reporters Without Borders said. "There are many red lines that journalists must not try to cross, there are many subjects that are off-limits and Mostafa Barzani, an historic figure, is clearly one of them. We are extremely worried, especially by the death threats that have been made against Lvin's journalists. Two journalists have already been murdered in the past two years."

The press freedom organisation added: "We appeal for calm. The KDP's leaders must accept that they have a duty to talk sense into their supporters or else the situation will get out of control. The regional government also has a duty to protect journalists working in Iraqi Kurdistan. Politicians must learn to distinguish between defamation and criticism. And the lawsuit against Rojname is absurd. Would the KDP dare to sue the New York Times, which the first to report what Rojname reported?"

Hate campaign against Lvin over article criticising historic figure

The offending article in Lvin Magazine, published on 1 August, consisted of an interview with a student, Irfan Qani' Fard, who is currently preparing a thesis at Harvard University on modern Kurdish history. In the interview, Fard criticised Mostafa Barzani, one of the earliest leaders of the KDP and a dominant figure on the Kurdish political stage until his death in 1979.

Fard said his research into British and US archives showed that Mostafa Barzani, when commander of the army of the Republic of Mahabad, a short-lived Kurdish political entity founded in December 1945, was encouraged by the British to help bring down the republic and betray its president, Qazi Muhammad, who was hanged by Iranian troops in 1946 when they recovered the region after a Soviet withdrawal.

Fard also said his research showed that it was the Iranian intelligence services that placed Mostafa Barzani at the head of a Kurdish revolution in 1961.

The publication of the interview triggered a wave of attacks on the newspaper and its staff that has grown in virulence.

The newspaper's editor, Ahmed Mira, told Reporters Without Borders: "Lvin Magazine interviewed the student in a neutral and professional manner. The staff is in no way responsible for the comments this historian made during the interview. Soon after its publication, Lvin and its journalists were the target of serious direct and indirect threats from the KDP. The attacks took various forms. They included death threats. They promised to make us pay."

Leaflets attacking Lvin and its journalists began being distributed by party supporters on the streets of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The KDP daily newspaper Khabat ran a similar message the next day with explicit threats against Lvin's staff (see copies of these threatening messages).

Pro-KDP mullahs publicly attacked Lvin and its journalists in their Friday sermons on 5 August, accusing them of blasphemy against Islam and urging the population to demonstrate against the newspaper. Some even called for physical attacks on its staff.

"All these threats were made because we published an interview in which a researcher dared to criticise what the official version of Kurdish history has to say about Mullah Mostafa Barzani," said Mira, who added that Lvin's journalists had ceased to be protected by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) despite being citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mira announced on 8 August that he had filed a complaint against Massoud Barzani as KRG president and as leader of the KDP because of the murderous appeals issued by KDP organisations and media.

KDP sues Rojname over smuggling allegations

A report published in Rojname on 20 July accused the KDP and its ruling coalition partner, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), of helping to smuggle refined petroleum products into Iran in violation of the international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the UN Security Council. The article accused the KDP and PUK of collecting 250,000 dollars a month each in kickbacks.

The KDP sued Rojname for 1 billion dollars in damages on 25 July and demanded its closure. "This lawsuit is one more example of the KDP's attempts to gag independent and opposition journalists," Rojname editor Azad Chalak told Reporters Without Borders. "The authorities do not want other voices to make themselves heard, especially when they expose the authoritarian system's inner workings and corruption."

"We have all the documents to prove what is said in the article," Chalak added. "There can be no doubt about the fact that we are going to win." The allegations that the PUK and KDP were collecting kickbacks from the contraband in petroleum products was first reported by the New York Times in its 8 July issue.

The amount of damages demanded is the biggest in the history of lawsuits against news media anywhere in Iraq, including Kurdistan. The 2007 press law in force in Iraqi Kurdistan does not allow a court to close down a news media and limits the amount of damages that can be demanded to 3 million dinars. But the KDP asked for Rojname to be tried under the 1969 Iraqi criminal code.

The trial, which Chalak regards as highly political, opened on 8 August in Erbil but Rojname's lawyers would rather the case were heard in Sulaymaniyah where the newspaper is based. "We have doubts about the independence of the courts in Erbil," Chalak said. "In Erbil, judges cannot issue a ruling without getting a green light from the KDP first. A trial of this kind cannot for one moment be regarded as fair. If it is held in Erbil, we will fear for our lives. We have asked for the case to be moved to Sulaymaniyah."

The court's decision on where the case should be tried is due to be issued on 23 August. The KDP is meanwhile reportedly pressuring the court to impose a travel ban on Chalak and the journalist who wrote the article, Sirwan Rasheed.

Launched in 2007 by the company Wisha, Rojname is nowadays the main mouthpiece of the opposition Movement for Change.

Raid on Hawdam Magazine

Gunmen went to the headquarters of the newspaper Hawdam in Erbil on 31 July claiming they had been authorised to carry out a search. "But they were unable to show us the authorisation," editor Rekan Sabah said. The newspaper reportedly supports Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

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