Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for the right of free expression, including for the press, that does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Baath Party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. The primary limitation on the exercise of this right 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, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service. Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal.
Central government and KRG forces arrested and detained protesters and activists critical of the central government and of the KRG, respectively, according to statements by government officials, NGO contacts, and press reporting.
In May residents of al-Nasiriya, Dhi Qar Governorate, protested the reported May 8 disappearance of a civil society activist who had written articles highlighting alleged corruption and criticizing political parties. Protesters called on the local government and security forces to investigate and publish their findings.
In July the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) fired the editor secretary of the IMN Magazine after he criticized the government on his personal social media account and expressed support for protesters in Basrah. In September al-Hurra television station received threats of violence after broadcasting stories perceived to convey anti-Iranian perspectives. Some online critics of the government operated under aliases to avoid persecution from the government and armed groups affiliated with elected officials. For example, on March 26 and 27, KRG forces prevented news crews from several IKR TV news outlets from covering demonstrations by teachers and public employees over salary delays in various locations in Erbil and Duhok Governorates. On May 26, Duhok Governorate security forces detained freelance journalist Mustafa Salih Bamarnee for 10 days for criticizing the KRG on social media.
Press and Media Freedom: Media were active and 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 political parties, militias, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, and private individuals, including political figures. Those media outlets unable to cover operating costs through advertising revenue frequently relied upon funding from political entities, leading to biased reporting. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.
Local NGOs reported that independent media outlets in the IKR decreased due to their inability to compete with the large media outlets founded and funded by political parties and officials. Party-affiliated outlets recruited and attracted journalists away from independent media, further weakening them, according to local media experts. On June 5, independent Kurdish news outlet Awene ceased printing its newspaper due to financial shortfalls.
The KDP and PUK, the IKR’s main political parties, gave prioritized access to the outlets they owned. In KDP strongholds, Kurdistan Television, Rudaw, and K24 had access to all public places and information, while in PUK-dominated Sulaimaniya Governorate, Kurdsat News, and GK TV enjoyed the same privilege. Conversely, outlets belonging to opposition parties or lacking party affiliation had limited access to public information in the IKR.
On March 27, Erbil Airport security reportedly prevented Nalia Radio and Television and Payam TV crews from covering a press conference with the Erbil Airport director. On July 5, the KRG prime minister’s office reportedly prevented Kurdish News Network Television from covering the prime minister’s press conference in Erbil.
Government forces sometimes prevented journalists from reporting, citing security reasons. Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government efforts to prevent them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services.
In June police arrested a reporter in Fallujah, Anbar Governorate, who was investigating the involvement of Fallujah city hall leaders in a real estate scandal. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), police did not inform the journalist of the reason for his arrest and released him without charge three days later.
Multiple press freedom advocacy groups reported numerous violations of press freedom by the KRG, including physically blocking journalists’ access to story locations and press conferences. In March, IKR authorities shut down news outlets and detained journalists for reporting on local demonstrations calling for basic government services. On March 26 and 27, security forces reportedly detained a Payam TV crew and Speda reporter Akar Fars for several hours, allegedly for covering demonstrations. Kurdish police shut down Khakbeer TV and seized broadcasting equipment of NRT from television crews.
Violence and Harassment: According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as of October no journalists were killed in the country.
Reporting from areas liberated from ISIS control remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government forces, militias, and ISIS remnants faced serious threats to their safety. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.
Media workers often reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them not to publish articles critical of them. Journalists reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment.
In July police reportedly used electroshock weapons against, threatened, and detained for three hours three journalists covering protests at the airport in Najaf Governorate. According to RSF, all three were clearly identifiable as journalists when the police attacked them. The CPJ reported that between July 14 and September 6 at least seven journalists were assaulted or detained by police and PMF while covering protests over government corruption and the lack of basic services in several cities across the country, and the offices of two local media outlets were set afire by protesters.
Throughout the IKR, there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases, the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. Press freedom CSOs accused IKR authorities of unlawful detention of news outlet employees, intimidation by physical violence, and torture in connection with March arrests of journalists reporting on local protests. According to a local NGO, on March 27, security forces attacked and beat a Kurdsat TV crew in Akre, Duhok Governorate, injuring reporter Dilbrin Ghazi, and detaining him for two hours. On May 24, Sarkawt Kuba, a senior official in the KRG political party Gorran, and his guards reportedly beat journalist Sabah Ali Qaraman for criticizing Gorran officials.
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 critical of political factions inhibited free expression. The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.
Public officials reportedly influenced content by 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.
During national parliamentary elections in May, the government restricted media access at polling stations and held news conferences only for state-owned media and a pan-Arab news outlet. The NGO Journalist Freedoms Observatory (JFO) criticized the Independent Higher Electoral Commission (IHEC) for its lack of transparency during the democratic process.
The KRG placed additional scrutiny on texts containing what it perceived to be religious extremism. A KRG-appointed committee that screens books for publication and printing licenses rejected several books for this reason. While in 2017 the KRG reportedly banned 200 books from around the world from sale at the Erbil International Book Fair, the KRG banned fewer than 40 books–all from the IKR–during this year’s book fair.
Libel/Slander Laws: Criminal and civil law prohibits defamation. Many in media asserted that defamation laws prevented them from freely practicing their profession by creating a strong fear of prosecution, although widespread self-censorship and financial reliance on political patronage impeded journalistic performance as well. Public officials occasionally filed libel charges that sometimes resulted in punitive fines on individual media outlets and editors, often for publishing articles containing allegations of corruption. When cases went to court, judges usually found in favor of the journalists, according to local media freedom organizations. Libel is a criminal offense under KRG law, and courts may issue arrest warrants for journalists on this basis.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental and quasi-governmental actors, including militias outside of state control, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations reportedly threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects. Specifically, Iran-aligned PMF groups reportedly sent death threats and other threats of violence to journalists and civil society members covering protests in Basrah Governorate in September.
The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government restrictions on access to the internet were overt, but the government denied that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Despite restrictions, political figures and activists used the internet to criticize politicians, mobilize protesters for demonstrations, and campaign for candidates through social media platforms.
The government acknowledged it interfered with internet access in some areas of the country, reportedly due to the security situation and ISIS’ disruptive use of social media platforms. There were reports government officials attempted unsuccessfully to have pages critical of the government removed from Facebook and Twitter as “hate speech.”
On July 16, the JFO issued a press release criticizing the government for cutting internet services and blocking social media sites throughout the country in what JFO considered an attempt to limit protests over the lack of adequate public services that erupted in southern and central Iraq. The government denied blocking internet services during the unrest and blamed the interruption on infrastructure issues, even though virtual private networks (VPNs) continued to work properly.
In a July report, Amnesty described how government forces assaulted peaceful protesters after purposefully disabling internet access in Baghdad and the southern portion of the country. Witnesses told the NGO that the government shut off internet access at strategic times to mask the government forces’ displays of excessive and unnecessary force against civilians, including the use of live ammunition, which resulted in the death of eight individuals in July (see section 2.b.).
The government sporadically instructed internet service providers to shut down the internet for two to three hours a day during school exams, reportedly to prevent cheating on standardized national exams. In September the NGO AccessNow reported that the Ministry of Communications cut online communications for 10 days for two hours per day for this reason.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 49 percent of individuals used the internet and 59 percent of households had internet access at home in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were government restrictions on 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 the granting of academic positions.
Academic freedoms remained restricted in areas of active conflict with ISIS.
NGOs in the IKR reported that senior professorships were easier to obtain for those with links to the traditional KDP and PUK ruling parties.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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 to 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.
The government largely respected the right of its citizens to freedom of peaceful assembly. In July and August in Baghdad, demonstrators staged peaceful protests to demand better services, jobs, and an end to government corruption.
In some cases the government used force against protesters. During protests in Basrah Governorate and other areas of southern Iraq over corruption and poor public services related to water and electricity between July and September, at least 15 persons died in clashes with government forces, according to media reports. Local human rights organizations reported that government forces in some cases prevented the injured from receiving treatment at hospitals and detained members of civil society investigating the government’s response to the protests.
On March 28, KRG forces arrested more than 80 protesters demonstrating against poor public services and government salaries in the IKR.
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 Baath 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, be 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. NGOs must register and periodically reregister in Baghdad. The NGO Directorate in the Council of Ministers Secretariat reported approximately 3,500 registered NGOs as of September. International organizations such as the ICRC and the International Commission on Missing Persons continued to operate in a legal gray area, given a gap in government registration regulations.
The IKR requires separate registration in Erbil. The first half of the year witnessed continuing fallout from the September 2017 KRG independence referendum in that the KRG and central government did not mutually recognize NGO registration. As a result, many NGOs that were registered only in Baghdad could not operate in the IKR for the first half of the year, while NGOs registered only in Erbil could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories until the issue was resolved.