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A dark future for press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan

'Tomorrow it will be you': A dark future for press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan
7 min read
09 August, 2023
In-depth: With politically motivated charges and show trials, the Kurdistan Regional Government has intensified its crackdown on activists and journalists to silence dissent, as new restrictions come into play.

The courtroom in Erbil erupted in a cascade of furious shouting when the judge read the verdict sentencing Kurdish journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani to four more years in prison.

His family and supporters jumped to their feet, loudly denouncing the ruling. His huddled defence team looked despondent. Members of the security forces cleared the courtroom with Kalashnikovs hanging from their shoulders.

“Why do you keep me in prison? Because I am not a part of your corruption! I am not broken,” Sherwani thundered, shaking the bars of the cage where he was kept during the 20 July trial on charges of allegedly falsifying a document.

During the hearing, which was observed by The New Arab, his defence team argued that prison officials had gone looking for a minor violation in order to keep their client in prison.

A well-known critic of the ruling parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, Sherwani was originally arrested in October 2020 in a crackdown following protests earlier that year in Duhok governorate against the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) economic policies and failure to pay public servants.

In February 2021, he was convicted alongside journalist Guhdar Zebari and activists Shivan Saeed, Hariwan Issa, and Ayaz Karam of “destabilising the security and stability” of the Kurdistan Region.

Human rights groups denounced the trial as politically motivated, while foreign governments and the UN strongly criticised deficiencies in due process.

The three activists were released on 16 March this year after Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani commuted their sentences. Sherwani and Zebari remain incarcerated because of additional charges against them.

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Outside the court, journalist Omed Baroshky decried the verdict at a press conference.

“Today it is against Sherwan Sherwani and me, tomorrow it will be against you and your family,” said Baroshky, who previously served two years in prison for violating the KRG’s controversial Communications Device Misuse Law.

Hours after speaking out against Sherwani’s verdict, he was arrested at his home in Duhok without a warrant. He was released the next day.

It is common for journalists in the Kurdistan Region to be detained by security forces for short periods without charge in an attempt to harass and intimidate them.

Protestors demonstrated outside the courtroom in support of Sherwani and against the verdict, in Sulaimaniyah in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on 23 July 2023. [Getty]

Increasing restrictions, escalating abuses

The 2021 case against Sherwani and his co-defendants shocked many outside observers into confronting the fact that freedom of expression is declining across the Kurdistan Region, which was once regarded as a bright spot for free media relative to its neighbours.

Last year, there were 431 documented violations against 301 journalists and outlets, according to local watchdog The Metro Centre for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy. This represents an average of more than eight violations per week and an increase from the 353 violations in 2021 and the 231 in 2019.

Security forces associated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls Erbil and Duhok, are responsible for the most violations, but the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is also active in attacking members of the media.

Last August, the PUK’s security forces detained at least 26 journalists in an attempt to prevent coverage of a protest in the party’s homebase of Sulaymaniyah, according to Human Rights Watch.

The ruling parties are also using government proclamations to choke independent outlets and make it dangerous to criticise the authorities.

On 22 May, the KRG’s Ministry of Youth and Culture released a new set of regulations that will give the government much greater powers to determine what content can be broadcast or posted online.

It also includes new rules regarding registration of media outlets, making it prohibitively expensive for those without wealthy backers to renew their licence.

In addition, many sections in these regulations have been written using vague language that is open to interpretation and potential abuse.

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For example, the new regulations prohibit outlets from publishing content that, “harms national security and the public interest, promotes activities that cause economic crisis or disrupt the market, offends spiritual beliefs, or is strange and harmful to Kurdish culture and society”.

Activists are concerned that these restrictions could conceivably be used to obstruct a wide range of journalistic work, such as investigations into corruption, abuses by the security forces, or the treatment of the LGBTQI+ community.

The new directives, which will enter into force in August, carry the same legal weight as the Press Law. Outlets accused of multiple violations of the new regulations could be blacklisted by the KRG.

“Iraqi Kurdish authorities are showing their determination to tell the world how vicious they can be against journalists,” said Sherif Mansour, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator.

Kurdish authorities escalated their crackdown on media outlets, journalists, and activists covering anti-government protests that swept the country in 2020. [Getty]

'A very wrong direction'

The continued prosecution of Sherwani is designed to send a message that public displays of dissent will not be tolerated, Kamaran Osman, who works for human rights NGO Community Peacemaker Teams (CPT), told The New Arab.

“The Badinan detainees are being targeted,” Osman said, using a term for the activists and journalists arrested in Erbil and Duhok. “There is a political power above the judiciary system…They want to keep Sherwan Sherwani in prison for more years.”

The latest case against Sherwani centred on a handwritten petition to the legal department of Erbil Adult Reform Prison. Sherwani and his four co-defendants wanted the office to stop work on an earlier request for conditional release, believing that it would be inevitably rejected.

Prison officials accused him of signing and fingerprinting the petition on behalf of Zebari, who was held in solitary confinement at the time it was submitted.

Zebari, Issa, and Saeed all testified during the 20 July trial. They explained that they had a standing arrangement authorising any member of the group to act on the others’ behalf regarding their joint case because they were frequently separated in the prison.

“We had an agreement. Even if Sherwani signed on our behalf, we are all OK because we agreed,” Saeed told the court when called as a witness. Asked by the judge whether he had a complaint against Sherwani, he said “no”.

A mullah and activist, Saeed was arrested in August 2020 after organising a protest in Duhok. Briefly released, Saeed was rearrested two months later and spent two-and-a-half years in prison. Footage of his daughter crying at his 2021 trial went viral on Kurdish social media.

During his own testimony on 20 July, Sherwani argued that prison officials were using a minor violation that inflicted no harm on his co-defendants or the public at large in order to prosecute him for political reasons.

“It’s handwriting. It’s not an oil contract. It’s a very informal document,” Sherwani said of the petition. “There is no impact on the prison. They just want to make a scenario.”

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In the end, the judges sided with the prosecution. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for violating Article 295 of the Iraqi Penal Code and one-and-a-half years for violating Article 298, both of which involve making use of false documents.

He had been set for release in September, but his latest conviction will keep the journalist behind bars until 2027. His lawyers said they will appeal.

As Sherwani yelled and shook his cage following the verdict and the security forces worked to clear the courtroom, Saeed sat silently in the back row with tears streaking down his cheeks.

“Kurdistan is going in a very, very wrong direction of not respecting human rights and freedom of expression,” Osman said.

“If anybody speaks out from now on, the legal system and judges can be used against them…It will break the trust between people, civil society, and the judiciary in Iraqi Kurdistan,” he added.

Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and analyst based in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. He focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @wrodgers2