KRG chief diplomat downplays idea that Kurdistan Region is under pressure over imprisoned journalists, activists

Head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Foreign Relations Safeen Dizayee appears on NRT's Tawtwe interview program on April 14, 2021 (NRT Digital Media/Screenshot)

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SULAIMANI — Head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Foreign Relations Safeen Dizayee on Wednesday (April 14) sought to downplay the notion that foreign diplomats were putting pressure on Erbil for its controversial prosecution of five journalists and activists from the Badinan area, amid continuing alarm about the deteriorating state of press freedom in the Region.

Journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam and activists Shvan Saeed Omar and Hariwan Issa were detained in Duhok and Erbil governorates in the autumn as part of a crackdown on protest organizers and journalists by the local security forces, which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

On February 16, they were convicted of conspiring to undermine the security of the Kurdistan Region and sentenced to six years in prison, despite the defendants denying the charges and saying that their statements contained things they never said and had been obtained through coercion.

Local and international human rights groups and press freedom advocates roundly condemned the verdict as a violation of democratic norms and the rule of law, not least because KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani appeared to personally intervene in the judicial process during a press conference ahead of the trial by calling the defendants “spies.”

In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the six-year sentence “unfair and disproportionate” and proof that the KRG “has finally dropped the pretense of caring about press freedom.”

The five have appealed the decision, though there is no public timetable for when the case may be heard. Meanwhile, they remain in prison with limited contact with their families or legal teams.

Recently, a delegation from the Kurdistan Parliament raised a number of concerns about the health of the detainees and the conditions of their confinement, saying that the cells where they are held are overcrowded and unsanitary.

During an interview with NRT’s Tawtwe program on Wednesday, Dizayee dismissed suggestions that foreign consulates had pressured the KRG over the issue as rumor.

He said that US diplomats demanded an explanation about the case and that the KRG had provided one.

In recent days, the US Consulate-General in Erbil has published several posts on social media about press freedom, including one saying that the US is “committed to supporting freedom of expression and press and believes that journalists and media outlets should be allowed to cover developments without fear of intimidation or retaliation.”

By all indicators, there has been a disturbing decline in the freedom of the press and expression in the Kurdistan Region over the past several years.

According to the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy there were at least 385 violations against 291 journalists and media agencies during 2020, including assaults, arrests, office closures, and harassing lawsuits, a significant increase over the previous year.

In its annual report on Iraq, Amnesty International devoted an entire section to concerns about “freedom of expression and assembly” in the Kurdistan Region, while the US State Department’s annual human rights overview was unsparing in its assessment of the conduct of the KRG and the ruling political parties.

Elsewhere in the interview, Dizayee portrayed the Kurdistan Region as an important partner to the international community.

“After the referendum, the Region's position was not weakened abroad,” he said.

“There are many countries in the world that are not viewed with the same importance as the Kurdistan Region.”

(NRT Digital Media)