The constitution broadly provides for the right of free expression, provided it does not violate public order and morality or express support for the banned Baath Party or for altering the country’s borders by violent means. In practice the main limitation on individual and media exercise of these rights was self-censorship due to the real fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs.
The law offers some additional legal protection for journalists but qualifies many protections with the phrase “in accordance with existing law,” which permits ambiguity about the actual scope of protection offered. The law fails to address the continuation of restrictive practices, including the criminalization of libel and defamation under penal law and the 1968 Publications Law’s ability to impose up to seven years’ imprisonment for publicly insulting the government. According to international and local NGOs, the Journalists’ Rights Law also enhanced the power of the progovernment Journalists’ Syndicate and reduced independence. Many journalists were concerned that the law’s requirement to provide a copy of their employment contract to the syndicate might disclose sensitive personal information that could jeopardize their and their families’ lives. Two journalist rights groups filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the law during the year. On October 2, the Supreme Federal Court upheld the law. The law was not fully implemented at year’s end.
In the IKR many journalists continued to be tried, convicted, and imprisoned under penal law, despite the 2008 media freedom law that decriminalized publication-related offenses. The Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate documented 37 lawsuits against journalists during the first six months of the year in the region. According to syndicate officials, the 2008 law is the sole basis for prosecution of journalists for publication offenses, but penal law allows prosecution for offenses to public morals and other crimes. Public officials regularly resorted to libel charges under criminal law, resulting in punitive fines against individual media outlets and editors, often for publishing articles on alleged corruption. For example, the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate reported that the chief editor of Zang magazine and a journalist for Bazaw magazine both received fines of one million Iraqi dinars (approximately $858) for publishing articles with content protected by the 2008 law. Public officials also provided money and other benefits to journalists, including access to venues, for positive reporting.
Freedom of Speech: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, the 1968 Publications Law provides, if authorized by the prime minister, for fines or the imposition of a term of imprisonment not to exceed seven years on any person who publicly insults the COR, the government, or public authorities. Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately, but not without fear of reprisal. Potential critics self-censored accordingly. According to December 26 press reports, Prime Minister Maliki sent a letter to the COR leadership requesting that immunity be removed from members of parliament who expressed their views outside of parliamentary sessions. Maliki claimed that criticism of the government would disrupt public order. HRW reported that KRG security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained at least 50 journalists, critics, and opposition political activists and prosecuted at least seven of them on criminal charges of insulting or defaming public figures during the year.
Freedom of Press: Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations. The active media expressed a variety of views largely reflecting political party positions, which included self-censorship and the government’s interpretation of lawful restrictions on violations of public order and morality.
On April 16, the Communications and Media Commission (CMC), the government body responsible for media regulations and broadcast licensing, asked the Ministry of Interior to close 44 foreign and local media outlets for noncompliance with registration procedures or for nonpayment of license fees. On June 22, the order gained widespread attention when the journalism rights NGO Journalistic Freedoms Observatory condemned it publicly as a setback for press freedom. CMC officials initially defended the closure as a technical measure to address licensing and financial irregularities but subsequently gave the outlets additional time to renew their lapsed licenses. The CMC reported that no media outlets remained closed because of failure to pay license fees at year’s end, although at least two outlets were closed temporarily without prior notification for alleged noncompliance with regulatory requirements during the year. Critics claimed that the closures were politically motivated.
In the IKR Mahmud Sangawi, a PUK politburo member, was recorded on July 30 swearing at and threatening the editor in chief of Garan magazine, Kawa Garmiany. The recording, which captures Sangawi telling Garmiany, “I will put your head in a grave,” was circulated widely on the Internet through social media. Garmiany reported to local and international NGOs that he feared for his life. There was no additional information on the incident at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: Five journalists and media workers were killed during the year. Journalists were targets of government security forces, corrupt officials, terrorists, religious groups unwilling to accept media independence, and unknown actors who wished to affect the flow of news. For example, on November 18, security forces found the body of Samir al-Sheikh Ali, the editor in chief of Baghdad’s Al-Jamaheer daily newspaper, in the Sheikh Omar area of Baghdad. Ali, also a prominent human rights activist who advocated for media freedom, was found with three bullets in his chest.
The NGO Iraqi Journalists Rights Defense Association reported 50 acts of harassment against 75 journalists outside of the IKR during the year, including 16 cases of physical assault, several attempted killings, and numerous arrests and detentions, some of which resulted in security forces confiscating equipment. On November 4, security forces beat al-Sumaryia camera operator Aziz Gazal, then arrested and detained him for attempting to film a series of explosions in Anbar Province; he was released later the same day.
Media workers often reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them to not publish or broadcast stories perceived as critical. They offered accounts of violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment by government or partisan officials. For example, on June 26, police in Kirkuk arrested a journalist and detained him for five hours after he took photographs of police beating child beggars. In the IKR members of the Zerevani (the KMOI-controlled Peshmerga) assaulted two journalists covering a gathering at a military facility in Zakho on April 11.
Throughout the IKR there were numerous instances of attempted killing, beatings, imprisonment, and property destruction against media. For example, on May 8, security forces attacked two journalists covering protests in front of the parliament and confiscated their equipment. The independent media freedom NGO Metro Center documented 132 acts of harassment in the IKR during the year, including five death threats, 50 arrests, 21 beatings, several lawsuits, and other attacks in the region. In many cases the aggressors wore military or police uniforms. With few exceptions these attacks were directed at the independent and opposition media, mainly the Kurdish News Network TV affiliated with the Goran (Change) Party and the independent Nalia Radio and Television, rather than at media controlled by the ruling parties.
Journalists in the IKR were occasionally detained for long periods before being brought to trial. In November 2011, for example, security forces arrested Karzan Karim, a former member of the Asayish and a columnist for the Kurdistan Post newspaper, after writing several opinion pieces on corruption at the Erbil International Airport. Security forces accused Karim of disclosing sensitive information related to his prior service in the Asayish. Karim was tried in October on terrorism charges, and on October 8, he was sentenced to two years in prison for “endangering national security.” Karim’s family reported that he was held in solitary confinement, beaten, and tortured during his 11-month detention. According to media outlets, Karim’s father, wife, and lawyer received threats from security forces after publicizing his extended detention without trial.
Despite multiple killings of journalists during the year, there were no prosecutions or convictions in these cases or those reported in 2011.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency are prohibited. The penalties for violating public integrity or decency include fines and imprisonment.
The censorship process relied substantially on self-censorship. Publications reflected the owner’s views, and writers understood the “acceptable” limits of reporting. Additionally the fear of violent responses to publishing facts or opinions displeasing to political factions inhibited free expression.
The government frequently attempted to restrict media content. For example, on March 14 in Baghdad, security forces detained a film crew from Russia Today’s Arabic television channel, Rusiya al-Yaum, for three hours when they tried to film a segment related to a series of attacks against individuals perceived to be LGBT or “emo” (see section 6). Even though the crew had a permit to film in Baghdad, security forces confiscated the footage.
The government used its authority to suppress potentially unfavorable media coverage. For example, on several occasions security officials in Maysan prevented reporters from covering stories by denying journalists access to venues. There were also reports that local governments selected journalists to receive tracts of land for their personal use in exchange for favorable media coverage.
All books were subject to censorship. Books published within the country required the Ministry of Culture’s approval before publication. All book imports were subject to the ministry’s censorship. According to the ministry, the purpose of the vetting was to suppress literature promoting sectarianism.
Libel Laws/National Security: Criminal law prohibits reporters from publishing stories that defame public officials. Many in the media complained that these provisions prevented them from freely practicing their profession by creating strong fears of prosecution, although widespread self-censorship impeded journalistic performance as well.
Libel is a criminal offense under KRG law as well, and judges may issue arrest warrants for journalists on this basis. When named in a lawsuit, journalists were typically detained at police stations until they posted bail. Police often kept journalists in custody during investigations.
The KRG frequently used the threat of legal action, often seeking disproportionate fines or damages, against media workers as a tool to discourage media from investigating allegations of bad governance. For example, in October, PUK politburo member Omar Fatah and his bodyguards sued journalist Asos Hardi and the editor in chief of the independent newspaper Awene for publishing an article that accused Fatah and his bodyguards of attacking Hardi in August 2011.
Nongovernmental Impact: Opposition, criminal, and terrorist groups sought to inhibit freedom of expression, including through threats to and attacks on members of the press. For example, on July 31, unknown gunmen shot and killed Ghazwan Anas, a sports and entertainment reporter, inside his home in Mosul; his mother, wife, and four-month-old son were severely injured in the attack.
There were no overt government restrictions on access to the Internet or official acknowledgement that the government monitored e‑mail or Internet chat rooms without judicial oversight. NGOs reported that the government could and was widely believed to monitor e‑mail, chat rooms, and social media sites through local Internet service providers.
In contrast with 2011, no reported violence or prosecutions resulted from Internet speech. Press reports indicated that executive branch employees were expressly prohibited from joining or using social media sites at any time. During the year a report by the International Research and Exchanges Board estimated that 4.7 percent of the population had regular access to the Internet, compared with 5 percent who used it in 2011, according to statistics from the International Telecommunication Union.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Social, religious, and political pressures restricted the exercise of freedom of choice in academic and cultural matters. In all regions various groups reportedly sought to control the pursuit of formal education and granting of academic positions. University professors reported that the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) dismissed qualified, experienced personnel based on religious and/or political party affiliation and sold positions to the highest bidders. On May 2, Mohammad Taqa, dean of the Baghdad College of Economics and a Sunni, was arrested on campus without warrant or charges. Local press outlets varied in their reporting of the charges brought against Taqa: one account claimed that Taqa was arrested on terrorism charges; another asserted that Taqa’s affiliation with the banned Baath Party led to his arrest. Faculty and students protested the arrest, labeling it “an affront to academia and scientific research,” and the Sunni Iraqiya political bloc claimed that the arrest was evidence of sectarian bias. The Al-Saah Court conducted an initial investigation, and all charges against Taqa were dropped; he was released from police custody on May 25.
There were reports, although fewer than in previous years, of threats by extremists and sectarian militants against schools and universities, urging them to modify activities or favor certain students, or face violence. Academics continued to be targeted in attacks during the year. For example, on July 2, unknown gunmen killed Mohammed Jasim Al-Jubouri, a faculty member at Imam Adham College in Mosul outside his home. Terrorist attacks even targeted elementary schools. On September 24, four children were killed and six injured in a suicide bombing outside an elementary school in Hit. Academics self-censored and educational institutions at times modified their activities accordingly.
The MOHE briefly instituted a gender segregation policy during the year, which prohibited male and female students from sitting in close proximity. There was considerable opposition to the policy, and it was later withdrawn. Authorities at Tikrit University reportedly continued to compel students to self-segregate in classes. Students at Al-Mustansiriyah University publicly expressed their disagreement with the short-lived MOHE gender segregation policy, and male and female students actively refused to sit on opposite sides of classrooms.