Syndicates, MPs, media outlets are silent on month-long closure of NRT offices: press freedom watchdog

‘Concerned that professional solidarity’ is lacking among outlets

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SULAIMANI — The Metro Center for Journalists' Right and Advocacy on Sunday (September 20) called on lawmakers in the Kurdistan Parliament, journalists’ syndicates, and media outlets in the Kurdistan Region to increase pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the ruling parties to stop violating freedom of the press and adhere to rule of law.

The press freedom watchdog issued its statement to mark a month since the security forces in Erbil and Duhok, which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), forcibly closed NRT’s offices in those governorates without a judicial order and placed harsh restrictions on the ability of its reporters to report from the field.

“Despite pressure and monitoring their work, the channel’s journalists have been preparing their reports in various ways in those cities and they have not allowed the decision to be effective,” Metro Center said. 

It added that it is a matter of their concern that the Kurdistan Region’s journalists’ syndicates, lawyers’ syndicates, and writers’ union, which are ostensibly places that advocate for freedom of expression, have not expressed credible objections to repeated violations. Instead, criticisms of KRG and the parties have been left to foreign groups and diplomats.

 “We are very concerned that professional solidarity between most of the Kurdistan [Region’s] media outlets and journalists is not present,” it said, adding that most local media outlets only defend press freedom when they themselves are facing pressure, but remain silent when the rights of their counterparts at other outlets are violated.

Both the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have repeatedly condemned the violations, with the former saying that press freedom in the Kurdistan Region is on the “brink of extinction.”

The issue was also front and center during talks between US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller and the Kurdistan Region’s political leadership last week.

Following NRT’s coverage of protests against the KRG’s decision to cut public salaries and its handling of deteriorating economic conditions, the security forces in Erbil and Duhok closed down the channel’s offices there on August 20, but never provided a warrant or any relevant judicial order to justify the action.

Metro Center called on the authorities to reconsider their decision to close the channel’s offices and to provide a full accounting of how the decision was made in the first place.

The closures are only the latest action in a long-running campaign of harassment and violations against NRT and its staff, dating back to 2011 when the channel was founded.

They are also indicative of the broader state of freedom of the press and expression in the Kurdistan Region, coming in the context of a broader crackdown on activists and journalists, with particular viciousness reserved for those working in Erbil and Duhok.

The same day that the offices were closed, NRT reporter Ahmad Zakhoy was arrested by the Zakho Asayish in a pre-dawn raid and held incommunicado for a week-and-a-half before being released without charge.

On August 13, journalist Omed Baroshki was released on bail in Duhok after spending 26 days in custody, only to be re-arrested just five hours later. He remains in prison.

Although largely focused on KDP-controlled areas, journalists working in Sulaimani and Halabja, which are dominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have had their rights violated as well.

Just in September, for instance, NRT presenter Shwan Adil has been hit with four separate lawsuits against him. The ruling parties will often use the courts to file frivolous and harassing suits against critical voices.

Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region, is ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

(NRT Digital Media)