Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution broadly provides for the right of free expression that does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Ba’ath party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. The primary limitation on individual and media exercise of these rights was self-censorship due to credible fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs.
Freedom of Expression: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, and interference with internet service. Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. For example, on March 14, KRG security forces prevented a Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) journalist from covering the visit of a western ambassador to Bashiqa. On August 28, the KRG Directorate of Media, Printing, and Publications announced it would temporarily halt the broadcast of NRT, a media outlet that criticized the KDP and the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum; NRT was closed for one week before resuming programming without incident. On October 28, the National Commission of Media and Communications called for Erbil-based Rudaw TV and Kurdistan 24 TV to suspend broadcasts for operating without a license and broadcasting programs that incite violence.
Press and Media Freedom: An active media expressed a variety of views largely reflecting the owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by militias, criminal organizations, and private individuals, including political figures. Media outlets, unable to cover operating costs through advertising revenue, frequently relied upon political funding that diminished their ability to report unbiased news. 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.
Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government preventing them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and weak governmental capacity. Government, KRG security authorities, and militias sometimes prevented journalists from reporting; they cited security pretexts.
On July 1, the Kurdish Journalists’ Syndicate released a report alleging 56 reported violations of press freedom in the first half of the year. From January 1 to September 1, according to the Metro Center for Defending Journalists’ Rights, there were 166 press violations against 144 journalists and media outlets. Both organizations reported that security forces physically blocked journalists’ access to story locations and press conferences.
Security forces barred Gorran-affiliated Kurdish News Network journalist Hazhar Anwar Jawhar, who reported he received several death threats, from covering stories, and they repeatedly assaulted him. He stated KDP security forces in Makhmour prevented him from reporting in the area in 2016 and that a KRG Ministry of Interior official warned him in April that if he did not lower his profile, he would be killed.
Violence and Harassment: According to a report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, 34 journalists were killed during the year.
Reporting from ISIS-controlled areas remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government, militia, and ISIS forces faced serious threats to their safety, with several instances of journalists killed or injured. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.
Media workers often reported they were pressured by persons and institutions, including politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders, not to publish articles critical of them. Media workers reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment. For example, on January 31, government officers reportedly harassed and beat a Radio al-Mirbad journalist to prevent him from reporting negative news in Basrah Governorate.
Throughout the IKR there were numerous beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore military or police uniforms. For example, on March 10, unknown gunmen fired on the house of freelance journalist Hemin Kareem in Sulaimaniyah. Kareem claimed he was targeted due to his critical writing on social media. According to a November 2 HRW statement, on October 30, at least six masked men in military uniforms broke into the Daquq home of Arkan Sharifi, a high school principal and cameraman for Kurdistan TV, and stabbed him to death. At year’s end the assailants remained unidentified and their motives unknown.
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 conviction include fines and imprisonment. Fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions displeasing to political factions inhibited free expression. Public officials reportedly influenced content through rewarding positive reporting with bribes, providing money, land, access to venues, and other benefits to journalists, particularly to members of the progovernment Journalists’ Syndicate. These restrictions extended to privately owned television stations operating outside of the country.
The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.
In August the National Commission of Media and Communications prevented two television channels from broadcasting the satirical al-Basheer Show, reportedly for violating the code of media conduct.
The KDP banned NRT, Payam, and the Kurdish News Network from covering the frontlines of the fight against ISIS in Ninewa Governorate as well as Mosul liberation operations that started in October 2016. Additionally, on August 28, the KRG banned NRT local broadcasts for one week because of commercial advertisements for the “No for Now” anti-Kurdistan Region independence referendum campaign. On August 31, KDP supporters raided NRT headquarters in Dahuk and destroyed the NRT logo on the roof of the building.
Libel/Slander Laws: Criminal and civil law prohibits defamation. Many in media complained this provision prevented them from freely practicing their profession by creating a strong fear of prosecution, although widespread self-censorship impeded journalistic performance as well. Public officials occasionally resorted to filing libel charges that in some cases resulted in punitive fines on individual media outlets and editors, often for publishing articles containing allegations of corruption. When cases went to court, the courts usually sided with the journalist, according to local media-freedom organizations.
Libel is a criminal offense under KRG law as well, and judges may issue arrest warrants for journalists on this basis.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental actors, including militia groups, reportedly threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects.
There were overt government restrictions on access to the internet, and there were credible reports, but no official acknowledgement, that the government monitored email and internet communications without appropriate legal authority. Despite restrictions, political figures and activists used the internet to criticize corrupt and ineffective politicians, mobilize protesters for demonstrations, and campaign for candidates through social media channels.
The government acknowledged that it interfered with internet access in some areas of the country due to the deterioration in the security situation and ISIS’s disruptive use of social media platforms. During the year there were reports that government officials attempted to have pages critical of the government removed from Facebook and Twitter as “hate speech,” although they did not succeed in doing so.
There were no reports the Ministry of Communications imposed social media blackouts. Sporadically throughout the year, the government instructed internet service providers to shut down the internet during school exams, reportedly so students could not cheat.
According to the World Bank, approximately 21 percent of the population used the internet in 2016, compared with 17 percent in 2015.
ISIS also severely restricted access to the internet and telephone service in areas under its control and threatened users with death.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Social, religious, and political pressures significantly 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. The country’s universities did not pursue gender-segregation policies. ISIS limited female education beyond the primary level in areas that it controlled.
Academic freedoms remained restricted in areas of active conflict and in ISIS-controlled territory. ISIS targeted libraries, museums, and academic institutions in violent attacks and abducted students and faculty. The situation improved during the year, however, as the government liberated locations from ISIS rule, and thousands of schools reopened.
ISIS limited cultural expression by targeting artists, poets, writers, and musicians in areas under its control.
NGOs in the KRG reported that senior professorships were easier to obtain for those with links to the traditional KDP and PUK ruling parties.
The government sometimes limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration “regulated by law.” Regulations require protest organizers request permission seven days in advance of a demonstration and submit detailed information regarding the applicants, the reason for the protest, and participants. The regulations prohibit all “slogans, signs, printed materials, or drawings” involving “sectarianism, racism, or segregation” of citizens. The regulations also prohibit anything that would violate the constitution or law; encourage violence, hatred, or killing; or prove insulting to Islam, “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general.” Provincial councils traditionally maintained authority to issue permits. Authorities generally issued permits in accordance with the regulations.
In large part the government respected the right of its citizens to freedom of peaceful assembly. For example, on March 24, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr addressed an estimated 50,000 followers in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to demand anticorruption reforms; the protest remained peaceful, and the estimated 2,000 riot police deployed for the occasion did not interfere with the assembly.
On September 19, hundreds of protesters reportedly gathered in Kirkuk to protest the Iraqi parliament’s motion to remove Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim from office; the protest was peaceful, and there were no reports government forces acted to disband the protest.
In some cases government forces dismissed unauthorized protests or restricted protests for security reasons. On February 11, riot police dispersed thousands of Sadr supporters gathered outside a gate to Baghdad’s International Zone; the clashes reportedly resulted in the death of one police officer and four protesters.
HRW reported the KRG security services and local police detained 32 persons in Erbil on March 4 for participating in a demonstration without a permit. Twenty-three of those detained were released the same day, three others were released four days later, and six foreign nationals were held for more than 10 days. One of those detained told HRW that authorities never charged him, but the police chief told him to leave Erbil.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for the right to form and join associations and political parties, with some exceptions. The government generally respected this right, except for the legal prohibitions against groups expressing support for the Ba’ath Party or Zionist principles. The penal code stipulates that any person convicted of promoting Zionist principles, association with Zionist organizations, assisting such organizations through material or moral support, or working in any way to realize Zionist objectives, is subject to punishment by death. There were no known cases of individuals charged with violating this law during the year.
The government reported it took approximately one month to process NGO registration applications, an improvement from past years. NGOs must register and periodically reregister in Baghdad. The NGO Directorate in the Council of Ministers Secretariat reported 3,450 registered NGOs as of November.
In January, KRG officials in Dahuk temporarily closed the offices of the Yazda organization, allegedly because it did not abide by NGO regulations requiring it to obtain approval to do advocacy work. A local NGO reported that the PUK Asayish prevented it from holding a meeting on corruption in February.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and other national legal instruments recognize the right of all citizens to freedom of movement, travel, and residence throughout the country, but the government did not consistently respect these rights. In some instances authorities restricted movements of displaced persons, and authorities did not allow camp residents to depart without specific permission, thereby limiting access to livelihoods, education, and services.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other vulnerable populations. The government did not have effective systems to assist all of these individuals, largely due to funding shortfalls, lack of capacity, and lack of access. The security situation and armed clashes between the ISF and ISIS throughout the year caused significant movement of civilians, further complicating the government’s coordination of relief efforts. Security considerations in and near active combat areas, unexploded ordnance, destruction of infrastructure, and official and unofficial restrictions limited humanitarian access to IDP communities.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UN agencies, NGOs, and the press reported that sectarian groups, extremists, criminals, and, in some alleged but unverified cases, government forces attacked and arrested refugees, including Palestinians, Ahwazis, and Syrian Arabs.
Local NGOs reported that abuse of Syrian refugees, often by other refugees, was common, including violence against women and children, child marriage, forced prostitution, and sexual harassment.
In-country Movement: The law permits security forces to restrict in-country movement pursuant to a warrant, impose a curfew, cordon off and search an area, and take other necessary security and military measures in response to security threats and attacks. There were numerous reports that security forces, including the ISF and Peshmerga, as well as the PMF, selectively enforced regulations requiring residency permits to limit entry of persons into liberated areas under their control. UNAMI and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights received multiple reports that Kirkuk’s largely non-Arab authorities denied Sunni Arab IDPs from Kirkuk’s Hawija District, as well as Salah al-Din and Ninewa Governorates access to Kirkuk.
There were reports that some PMF militias harassed or threatened civilians fleeing conflict zones, and targeted civilians with threats, intimidation, physical violence, abduction, destruction of property, and killing. There were a number of reports that IDPs, particularly those suspected of ISIS affiliation, faced hostility from local government authorities and populations, as well as threats of expulsion.
The United Nations and humanitarian agencies reported that Kirkuk authorities confiscated identification documents or served notices of eviction to IDPs from Salah al-Din, Anbar, and Diyala Governorates, provoking their departure from camps and urban centers. Authorities reportedly used coercive measures during eviction notifications. Amnesty International reported that PMF units (predominantly Shi’a militias) and the Peshmerga forces prevented civilians, largely Sunni, from returning to their homes after they ousted ISIS.
In Anbar the United Nations and humanitarian agencies noted reports of collective punishment against families with relatives suspected of affiliation with extremist groups in retaken areas. Anbar authorities reportedly made efforts to stop this practice and to work toward post-ISIS reconciliation.
The KRG restricted movement across the areas it administered. Authorities required nonresidents to obtain permits that authorized limited stays in the IKR. These permits were generally renewable. Citizens who sought to obtain residency permits for KRG-controlled areas required sponsorship from a resident in the region. Citizens (of all ethnosectarian backgrounds, including Kurds) crossing into the IKR from central or southern regions were obligated to cross through checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection. The government imposed similar restrictions on IDPs from Ninewa Governorate and the disputed territories. While authorities allowed many IDPs to return to their places of origin in retaken areas, ethnic Arabs originating from disputed territories under control of the Peshmerga forces were generally prevented from doing so.
KRG authorities applied restrictions more stringently in some areas than in others. The United Nations and international humanitarian organizations stated that practices regarding the entry of IDPs and refugees seeking to return were more or less restrictive depending upon the ethnosectarian background of the displaced individuals and the area to which they intended to return. There were also reports that authorities sometimes closed checkpoints into the region for extended periods, forcing IDPs to wait. Officials prevented individuals whom they deemed security threats from entering the region. KRG officials generally admitted minority IDPs into the IKR, although security checks were occasionally lengthy. Entry often was more difficult for men, particularly Arab men traveling without family.
Due to military operations against ISIS, the ISF, including the PMF and KRG Peshmerga, increased the number of checkpoints and erected makeshift roadblocks in many parts of the country (see section 1.g.). During military operations to retake Mosul, Tal Afar, Hawija, and areas of western Anbar, the ISF managed the transportation of numerous IDPs from muster points to designated and available sites, without allowing IDPs any option to choose displacement sites. In more severe cases, authorities transported households suspected of ISIS affiliation, including many women and children, to substandard sites without any information or freedom of movement. Sites included Ninewa’s Hamam al-Alil and Tel Kayf camps, as well as Salah al-Din’s al-Shahama camp.
ISIS restricted freedom of movement, particularly in the west and north (see section 1.g.). There were numerous credible reports that ISIS killed civilians trying to flee, including in the cities of Hawija, Qayara, and Mosul, when the ISF moved to liberate those areas.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for citizens leaving the country, but the requirement was not routinely enforced.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The constitution and the national policy on displacement address IDP rights, but few laws specifically do so. The government and international organizations, including UN agencies and NGOs, attempted to provide protection and other assistance to IDPs. High numbers of IDPs outside of camps strained host communities’ resources. Since 2014 the United Nations has designated the country’s humanitarian crisis as a level three emergency, its highest level, citing the scale, urgency, and complexity of the situation.
In some areas violence and insecurity, along with long-standing political, tribal and sectarian tensions, hampered progress on national reconciliation and political reform, complicating the protection environment. Thousands of families have experienced multiple displacements, and large numbers were compelled to move across governorates in search of protection. Forced displacements, combined with the protracted and largely unresolved problem of millions of persons uprooted in the past decades, had a destabilizing effect on the country’s already complex social and political dynamics, straining the capacity of local authorities and revealing the limitations of legal and administrative frameworks.
All citizens are eligible to receive food under the Public Distribution System (PDS); however, authorities implemented the PDS sporadically and irregularly, with limited access in recently retaken areas. Authorities did not distribute all commodities each month, and not all IDPs could access the PDS in each governorate. Low oil prices further limited funds available for the PDS. Citizens could only redeem PDS rations at their place of residence and within their registered governorate, causing loss of access and entitlement following displacement. Following military operations in Mosul, the government included PDS in the first wave of services restoration.
Persons who did not register as IDPs in their places of residence sometimes faced limited access to services. Local authorities often determined whether IDPs would have access to local services. Through the provision of legal aid, the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies assisted IDPs in obtaining documentation and registering with authorities to improve access to services and entitlements. Humanitarian agencies reported some IDPs faced difficulty with registration due to lack of required documentation and administrative delays. Many citizens who previously lived in ISIS-controlled areas did not have civil documents for the prior two or three years, increasing the difficulty of obtaining identification and other personal documents.
Although government assistance focused on financial grants, it did not make payments consistently. Faced with the large movements of IDPs across the country, the government provided food, water, and financial assistance to many but not all IDPs, including in the KRG. Many IDPs lived in informal settlements where they did not receive adequate water, sanitation, or other essential services. According to the International Organization for Migration, as of October, 12 percent of IDPs lived in shelter arrangements that did not meet minimal safety or security standards, 24 percent lived in IDP camps and settlements, and approximately 48 percent resided in private accommodations, including host family residences, hotels, motels, and rented housing.
Since 2014 armed conflict has displaced more than 3.2 million persons, predominantly from Anbar, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din Governorates. From October 2016 to July, Mosul military operations cumulatively displaced more than one million persons, primarily to other areas of Ninewa Governorate. Subsequent military operations in Tal Afar prompted additional Ninewa displacement, while operations in Hawija and western Anbar displaced more than 109,000 persons and 67,000 persons in central and southern regions of the country, respectively, as of mid-November. Almost 2.3 million individuals returned to their communities throughout the country in the past two years. Up to one million individuals remained displaced from the 2006-08 sectarian conflict.
While humanitarian assistance generally reached IDPs in most of the country, access to those remaining in ISIS-controlled areas was limited. Humanitarian personnel were restricted from providing assistance in these areas due to security and movement limitations that constrained aid delivery.
During September central government authorities evicted Anbar IDPs from Amiriyah Fallujah IDP camp complex. The Anbar Operations Command repeatedly mandated the return of IDPs to areas of origin in Falluja District, despite insecurity and vulnerability to sectarian threats in these areas. Furthermore, confiscation of documentation, particularly from male IDPs, increased protection risks and impeded IDPs’ access to public services and humanitarian assistance. In November and December, government officials forced the return of hundreds of IDPs in Anbar and Salahuddin.
On July 9, HRW reported that KRG forces expelled at least four Yezidi IDP families and threatened others because of the participation of their relatives in Iraqi security forces. The Asayish returned the displaced families to Sinjar where access to basic goods and services was very limited. As of the end of August, the Asayish expelled more than 200 Yezidi IDPs from camps, according to the Yezidi Documentation Organization.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government established a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the country hosts more than 284,000 refugees, primarily from Syria, with smaller numbers of Iranians, Turks, and Palestinians. The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees in the country.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to work in the private sector. Palestinian refugees, however, faced job insecurity when working in the public sector due to their ambiguous legal status; the government did not recognize their refugee status and did not allow them to obtain citizenship. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the KRG. Iraqi authorities arrested refugees who sought work outside of the KRG and returned them to the KRG.
Durable Solutions: There was no large-scale resettlement or integration of non-Iraqi refugees in central and southern Iraq. Ethnic Kurdish refugees from Syria, Turkey, and Iran generally integrated well in the KRG, although economic hardship plagued families and prevented some children, especially Syrians, from enrolling in formal school. Education service providers in the KRG reported that out-of-camp IDP populations had the poorest school attendance and highest dropout rates amongst IDPs, refugees, and host communities. In September the KRG reported that approximately 60 percent of Syrian refugees in the region lived outside camps. Many worked in Erbil or found shelter with relatives locally.
UNHCR estimated there were more than 48,000 stateless individuals in the country in 2016, the latest year for which complete data were available.
As of 2006 the latest year for which data were available, an estimated 54,500 Bidoun individuals, descendants of individuals who never received Iraqi citizenship upon the state’s founding, living as nomads in the desert near or in the southern governorates of Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Qadisiyah, remained undocumented and stateless. Prolonged drought in the southern section of the country forced many individuals from these communities to migrate to city centers, where most obtained identification documents and gained access to food rations and other social benefits. Other communities similarly at risk of statelessness included the country’s Romani population; the Ahwazi, who are Shia Arabs of Iranian descent; the Bahai religious minority; inhabitants of the southern marshlands; members of the Goyan and Omariya Turkish Kurdish tribes near Mosul; and nationals of South Sudan.
Stateless persons faced discrimination in employment and access to education. Many stateless persons were not able to register for identity cards, which prevented them from enrolling in public school, registering marriages, and gaining access to some government services. Stateless persons also faced difficulty obtaining public-sector employment and lacked job security.