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 Ba’ath Party or for altering the borders by violent means. In an atmosphere of rising uncertainty about the country’s political future, and amid the Arab Spring, the government increasingly interpreted the law restrictively and acted in practice to limit these rights. 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, criminal gangs, insurgent and sectarian forces, or tribes.
On August 9, the COR passed legislation (the Journalist Rights Law) that offers some additional legal protection for journalists but qualifies many protections by the phrase “in accordance with existing law,” which permits ambiguity about the actual scope of protection offered. The new law fails to address the continuation of restrictive practices, including the criminalization of libel and defamation under the 1969 penal code 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 new law also enhances the power of the progovernment Journalists Syndicate. 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.
In the IKR the Journalist Rights Law did not apply, and journalists continued to be tried, convicted, and imprisoned under the 1969 penal code, despite the 2008 media freedom law that decriminalized publication-related offenses. The Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate documented 37 lawsuits against journalists during the year in the region. According to syndicate officials, the 2008 law is the sole basis for prosecution of journalists for publication offenses, but the penal code allows prosecution for offenses to public morals and other crimes despite the implementation new Journalism Protection Law. Public officials regularly resorted to punitive fines through legal actions against individual media outlets and editors, often for publishing articles on alleged corruption.
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 for any person who publicly insults the COR, the government, or public authorities. On September 22, the prime minister ordered the issuance of an arrest warrant for COR member Sheikh Sabah al-Saadi, a prominent critic of the government, for insulting the prime minister by publicly stating that he was corrupt. Under the law, however, COR members cannot be arrested.
Individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately, but not without concern of reprisal by the government or by criminal gangs allegedly associated with the government if the criticism was seen as challenging an important person’s sense of honor.
Potential critics self-censored accordingly. On September 8, two months after he stopped hosting his popular radio talk show because of fears for his safety, Hadi al-Mahdi, a frequent critic of government corruption, bribery, and sectarianism, was shot and killed in his home in Baghdad. Via his Facebook page, al-Mahdi organized regular prodemocracy demonstrations and publicized death threats he said he had received. A Shia, al-Mahdi had defended the rights of Sunnis, according to the international NGO Committee to Protect Journalists.
Freedom of Press: Political parties strongly influenced 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.
Violence and Harassment: Eight journalists and media workers were killed during the year. Journalists were targets of government security forces, corrupt officials, terrorists, religious groups that were unwilling to accept media independence, and unknown actors who wished to affect the flow of news. For example, on February 17, Hilal al-Ahmadi, a journalist who wrote about corruption and lack of government services, was shot and killed in front of his home on the outskirts of Mosul.
The NGO Journalistic Freedoms Observatory recorded more than 160 attacks on journalists during the two-week period ending on March 9, when antigovernment demonstrations stimulated by the Arab Spring were at their peak. On February 23, security forces raided the observatory’s office, confiscating and destroying computers and other media equipment.
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 February 25, four journalists, including Hadi al-Mahdi, were arrested, beaten, and taken to a building that houses the military intelligence unit of the army’s 11th Division. While detained, the journalists were reportedly tortured and threatened with summary execution. The journalists saw 300 other protesters in the same facility, many with black hoods over their heads and bloodied shirts.
Throughout the IKR there were numerous credible reports of attempted murder, beatings, imprisonment, and property destruction carried out against media. The Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate documented more than 100 acts of harassment, including threats, lawsuits, and attacks, from January to October in the region. In many of these reports, the aggressors wore military or police uniforms. With one exception, these attacks were directed at the independent and opposition media, mainly Goran (Change) and the KIU, rather than at media controlled by the ruling parties.
Despite multiple killings of journalists during the year, there were no prosecutions or convictions for these or those that occurred in 2010, including the May 2010 abduction and killing of Sardasht Osman, who was known for his articles alleging nepotism and corruption among the leadership of the Kurdistan region, including President Massoud Barzani.
In another high profile case in the IKR, Asos Hardi, founder and editor of the independent newspaper Awene, was severely beaten in Suleimaniyah in August. The Suleimaniyah criminal court released two persons charged with the crime--who had links to the PUK--on grounds of insufficient evidence in December, a decision that Hardi’s lawyers appealed. Hardi fully recovered and continued to publish Awene at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency is prohibited. The penalties for violating public integrity or decency include fines and imprisonment.
On February 25, shortly after it broadcast scenes from the protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, security forces raided the offices of satellite channel al-Diyar, arrested and beat the employees, and then forced the station off the air.
On March 3, a group of Asayish operatives reportedly kidnapped Speda TV journalists Sangar Hamid and Asad Muhamamad in front of the Speda TV office in Garmiyan. According to the journalists, they were beaten and insulted at the Garmiyan Directorate of Asayish and threatened with death if either of them was seen with a camera at a demonstration.
The government used its authority to suppress potentially unfavorable media coverage. For example, in August the authorities banned journalists in Kirkuk from filming at schools and from writing about schools after the release of a critical documentary that embarrassed the Ministry of Education.
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: The 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 remains a criminal offense in the IKR, 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 government frequently used the threat of legal action against media workers as a tool to discourage media from investigating allegations of bad governance, often seeking disproportionate fines or damages. For example, on January 10, the independent newspaper Hawlati reported that Erbil’s First Instance Court fined the independent magazine Lvin 35 million dinars (approximately $30,000) after KDP politburo secretary Fazil Mirani filed a lawsuit against the magazine for publishing reports implying a connection between the KDP’s intelligence service Parastin and the murder of journalist Sardasht Osman in May 2010. Lvin editor Ahmed Mira stated that the magazine was not notified of the court proceedings in Erbil and that the verdict was issued in its absence. Following another article critical of the KDP in Lvin in May, the KDP filed a lawsuit on May 18 demanding Lvin’s closure, a fine of one billion dinars ($858,000), and banning Mira from leaving the country. In September, according to press reports, Mira was arrested, beaten, and released after three hours in custody without being charged. At year’s end Lvin continued to be published.