The constitution broadly provides for the right of free expression if 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. 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 Journalists’ Rights 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 up to seven years’ imprisonment under the 1968 Publications Law for publicly insulting the government. According to international and local NGOs, the 2011 Journalists’ Rights Law also enhances the power of the pro-government journalists’ syndicate and reduces media 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. The Federal Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality in October 2012, but the government had not fully implemented it by year’s end.
In the IKR, Kurdistan regional government authorities continued to try, convict, and imprison journalists under penal law, despite a 2008 media freedom law that decriminalizes publication-related offenses. According to syndicate officials, the 2008 law is the sole basis for prosecution of journalists for publication offenses, but penal law allows prosecution for offense 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. The Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate documented 37 lawsuits against journalists during the first six months of the year in the region. On October 29, a court fined the former editor in chief of the Awene newspaper, Shwan Mohammed, one million dinars ($860) and fined the newspaper five million dinars ($4,300) for Awene’s 2009 publication of a photo of an Islamist politician at a London nightclub.
Public officials also reportedly rewarded positive reporting by providing money, land, access to venues, and other benefits to journalists, particularly members of the pro-government Journalists’ Syndicate.
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 a prison sentence of up to seven years for any person convicted of publicly insulting the Council of Representatives, the government, or public authorities. Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately, but not without fear of reprisal. On July 24, the Communications and Media Commission (CMC), a nominally independent but government-run media regulator, demanded 70 million dinars ($60,100) in new licensing fees from at least three independent radio stations in order to remain on the air. Representatives of Radio al-Mahaba, established in 2005 with the support of the UN Development Fund for Women, announced that its coverage of political issues from a women’s perspective routinely resulted in closure threats and claimed that the licensing fees were a renewed attempt to shut it down. The CMC was reportedly reconsidering imposing the fees at year’s end.
Press Freedoms: Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print media publications as well as dozens of radio and television stations. The active media expressed a variety of views largely reflecting political party positions and also practiced self-censorship. Media organizations complied with the government’s interpretation of reporting that violates legal restrictions against violating public order and self-censored accordingly.
On April 28, according to press reports, the CMC suspended the licenses of 10 satellite television channels for “unprofessional news coverage” of the clashes in Hawija (which resulted in government security forces reportedly killing 44 Sunni protesters), accusing the networks of “disturbing the civil and democratic process” and providing “support for terrorist groups.” Most of the suspended stations were domestic with ties to Sunni politicians but also included Qatar-based al-Jazeera, which officials frequently accused of anti-government (and anti-Shia) bias. While all of the channels remained available on satellite, their reporters were restricted from gathering news in the country. By June the government lifted the suspension of licenses for the satellite television channels but, according to the National Union of Iraqi Journalists, the government continued to harass the stations and limit their newsgathering activities.
On September 13, Ministry of Interior officials reportedly raided the offices of al-Baghdadiya news station and confiscated its satellite transmitter, effectively taking the station off the air. The CMC claimed that it had not issued orders to take the station off the air and that the Interior Ministry had acted independently. Iraqi Journalists’ Union members alleged that the Ministry of Interior sought to take the station off the air due to a program that had portrayed the interior minister unfavorably. Al-Baghdadiya resumed operations shortly after the Interior Ministry raid on its facilities.
During the year the government continued to prosecute journalists for allegedly defaming public figures and reporting on politically sensitive topics. According to HRW, the government often prosecuted journalists under Article 314 of the penal code, which criminalizes defamation and provides penalties of up to one month in prison or a fine of 50,000 to 250,000 dinars ($43 to $215). The Center for the Legal Protection of Journalists reported that more than 10 journalists faced criminal charges for defamation at year’s end. On October 27, the Court for Media and Publications sentenced Zohair Fatlawi to three days in prison on criminal defamation charges for writing an article accusing authorities in the central government’s housing fund, which finances housing projects and provides mortgages, of corruption and failing to provide services.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were targets of government security forces, corrupt officials, terrorists, religious groups that rejected media independence, and unknown actors who wished to affect the flow of news. In August the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, a domestic media advocacy organization, recorded 259 cases of killings of Iraqi and foreign journalists since 2003. The report added that kidnappers abducted 64 activists, most of whom they killed, while 14 remained missing. The Journalistic Freedom Observatory reported that during the year militants or terrorist groups killed 21 journalists. In addition, the Press Freedom Advocacy Association registered 286 cases of harassment against journalists during the year. The government had not investigated any of the crimes at year’s end.
On April 1, an armed militia group allegedly affiliated with Shia cleric Mahmud al-Sarkhi attacked and destroyed the offices of independent domestic newspapers al-Dustour, al-Parliament, al-Mustaqbal, and al-Nas and stabbed five employees. The assailants, some of whom wore military uniforms, also damaged computers and office furniture. According to local media, the attack was an apparent retaliation for articles critical of Sarkhi. The Interior Ministry confirmed that it had security camera footage that could assist in identifying the attackers, but the government had made no arrests in connection with the attacks by year’s end.
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 August 2, press reports noted that security forces detained and abused two journalists for attempting to cover a demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square against Prime Minister Maliki’s handling of the country’s deteriorating security situation. According to the journalists, security forces confiscated their still and video cameras, and authorities detained them overnight and subjected them to intimidation for attempting to report on the protests, despite having Ministry of Interior licenses to cover the events. The National Union of Iraqi Journalists publicly condemned the incident.
Throughout the year military officials, sometimes claiming safety considerations, prevented journalists from entering public protest spaces. On March 3, Lieutenant General Mardhi al-Mahlawi al-Dulaime, chief of Anbar Operations Command, released a statement asserting, “We have received instructions from higher authorities not to allow any non-Iraqi journalists to enter Anbar Province.” In April authorities prevented journalists from traveling near the city of Hawija, the site of security forces’ violent suppression of large demonstrations.
Throughout the IKR there were numerous instances of attempted killings, beatings, detention, and property destruction against media workers. In many cases the aggressors wore military or police uniforms. With few exceptions attacks targeted independent and opposition media, mainly the Kurdish News Network Television (affiliated with the Goran (Change) Movement) and the independent Nalia Radio and Television, rather than media controlled by ruling parties. Following controversy over a call-in show during which a caller used profanity to criticize a historical KDP leader, a gathering of KDP supporters on February 12 threatened to close or burn down the Nalia Radio and Television station during a protest in front of the station. Unknown assailants attacked the station later that night, throwing a grenade onto the building’s roof. The local Asayish branch stated it would investigate the incident, but it had not announced investigation results by year’s end. On December 5, unknown assailants shot and killed journalist Kawa Garmiani in Sulaimaniyah Province. Kurdistan regional government authorities arrested seven persons in connection with the crime and issued an arrest warrant for an eighth suspect, politician Mahmood Sangawi. In 2012 Sangawi threatened Garmiani’s life in a video that was widely circulated on social media. As of year’s end, authorities had released six of the arrested individuals, and trials in the case had not started. Sangawi ignored a summons to appear in the court with jurisdiction over the case.
Kurdistan regional government authorities occasionally detained journalists for long periods before bringing them to trial. On August 28, KDP-affiliated Asayish security forces arrested Nizar Bejan, a reporter for Bashur magazine in Zahko, Dahuk Province. Authorities released Bejan on September 28.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency. 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. The fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions displeasing to political factions also inhibited free expression.
The government used its authority to suppress potentially unfavorable media coverage. On several occasions, security officials prevented reporters from covering stories by denying journalists access to venues, particularly sites of ongoing protests or demonstrations. There were also reports that local governments selected journalists to receive tracts of land for their personal use in exchange for favorable media coverage. In addition, according to the local NGO Journalistic Freedom Observatory, in some instances security forces threatened detention of correspondents if they did not sign a pledge to stop practicing their profession. For example, on November 22, security forces detained al-Baghdadiya Television correspondent Rasha al-Abadi while she interviewed residents of Najaf on their reaction to a flood. According to the Journalistic Freedom Observatory, security vehicles cordoned a residential property in which she was conducting an interview, requested that al-Abadi sign a pledge that she would no longer practice journalism, and, after she refused to sign, detained her for several hours until local political figures secured her release.
All books published in the country as well as imported books required the Ministry of Culture’s approval and were therefore subject to censorship. According to the ministry, the purpose of the vetting was to suppress literature that promotes sectarianism.
The Kurdistan regional government Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs refused to issue a publishing permit for a second book by writer Suzan Jamal, whose first book, One Million Questions and Answers About Sex, resulted in anonymous threats against her life.
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 Kurdistan regional government law as well, and judges may issue arrest warrants for journalists on this basis. Police typically detained journalists, when named in a lawsuit, until they posted bail. Police often kept journalists in custody during investigations.
On May 30, officials released Karzan Karim from prison after he completed a two-year sentence following his October 2012 conviction for “endangering national security.” Security forces arrested Karim, a former Asayish member, in 2011 for writing several opinion pieces on corruption at the Erbil International Airport.
Nongovernmental Impact: Opposition, criminal, and terrorist groups sought to inhibit freedom of expression, including through threats to and attacks on members of the press. AQI/ISIL attacks routinely targeted journalists, particularly in Ninewa Province. In October gunmen killed four journalists in Mosul. On November 24, unidentified assailants shot and killed Alaa Edward Butros, a Christian journalist for al-Rashid television news service, in a coffee shop near Mosul. Authorities had not released any information about possible arrests or investigations in connection with the killings by year’s end.
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 appropriate legal authority.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, an estimated 7.1 percent of the country’s citizens regularly accessed the internet during the year, compared with 4.7 percent in 2012.
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. Religious extremists and armed groups also targeted artists, poets, writers, and musicians, limiting cultural expression.
On August 28, the international press reported that illegal al-Mahdi militias attacked and severely beat 28-year-old artist Bassim al-Shaker for painting a portrait of a nude woman as practice for the entrance exam at Baghdad University’s College of Fine Arts. Al-Shaker, who also ran a barbershop, kept the sketches on a notepad next to the shop’s water cooler, where the militiamen found them when they stopped for haircuts. The militants reportedly spat on him, blindfolded him, and punched him as they took him through a busy neighborhood market in Baghdad. The militants beat al-Shaker so severely that he spent two weeks recovering in the hospital and then went into hiding.
On August 25, the Ministry of Education banned male teachers from teaching in girls’ secondary schools and females from teaching in male secondary schools. Schools had not fully implemented the decision by year’s end.
There is no gender-segregation policy in the country’s universities, and there were no reported incidents of forced segregation during the year. There were reports of societal pressures on female students in Basra and Ninewa to wear the hijab (headscarf).
Kurdistan regional government authorities limited academic freedom. Supervisors with political connections disciplined teachers and other members of the academic community for criticizing the government. For example, in February the president of Salah-ad-Din University dismissed Professor Rabwn Rafik from the university’s College of Arts for expressing political views and criticizing the Kurdistan regional government in media interviews. According to press, the university threatened six additional professors with dismissal for “criticizing the authority.” The dismissal was met with widespread condemnation and student boycotts, prompting the president to reverse the dismissal.