UN condemns 'increasingly repressive' behavior of Kurdistan Region towards freedom of expression

Damning report issued after week of scrutiny, criticism
A line of riot police stop a group of demonstrators in Sulaimani on June 16, 2020 protesting against Turkish airstrikes in the Kurdistan Region (NRT Digital Media/Winthrop Rodgers)

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SULAIMANI — The UN published a lengthy and detailed report on Wednesday (May 12) about the marked deterioration of freedom of expression in the Kurdistan Region over the past year, pointing to a significant number of specific incidents where journalists were arbitrarily arrested, assaulted, served with harassing lawsuits, or otherwise had their rights violated by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the security forces, and the judiciary.

“The facts observed on the ground currently point to an increasingly repressive pattern of active curtailment of freedom of expression,” the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in their joint report.

Covering the period between March 1, 2020 and April 30, 2021, the report was based on 361 interviews with a range of stakeholders, including government officials, journalists, activists and their families, lawyers, and civil society actors, along with open-source reporting on events in the Kurdistan Region.

“The key findings of this report are of serious concern, particularly the behavior of the security apparatus, the selective application of laws, and the lack of compliance with relevant legal procedures and international human rights standards, including fair trial rights,” the report said.

The damning report comes after a week where the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the ruling parties were under the microscope over violations of freedom of expression and the press, with sustained and unusually strong condemnations of it systematic abuses of the rights of journalists and activists.

On May 6, the Kurdistan Region’s Court of Cassation in Erbil denied the appeal of journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam and activists Shvan Saeed Omar and Hariwan Issa against their conviction in February for allegedly attempting to undermine the security of the state. They were each sentenced to six years in prison.

Their case, which was discussed at length in the UN report as a major example of the Region’s repressive actions, has been widely condemned by a range of local and international human rights groups and press freedom watchdogs and some of the Region’s most important foreign partners, including the European Union, United States, Germany, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

For many, it embodies the dynamics of the brutal period for journalists and activists in the Kurdistan Region covered by the UN report.

During 2020, there was more than one violation against journalists per day on average in the Kurdistan Region, totaling 385 incidents against 291 journalists and media agencies, local watchdog the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy found in its year-end review.

A selection of those violations were included in the report. Although most targets of those abuses were not explicitly named, their stories were clearly identifiable and correlate with contemporaneous reporting.

For example, it highlighted the arbitrary detention and targeted prosecution of journalist Hemin Mamad last year. He was repeatedly detained for Facebook posts criticizing the government’s handling of the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of violations identified in the UN report specifically concerned NRT, including the arbitrary arrest in August of one of its reporters in Duhok governorate Ahmad Zakhoy, a violent attack in June on two of its journalists in Sulaimani while live on air, and the repeated closures of its offices in Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimani during the second half of 2020.

The report also discussed violations against activists, including Badal Barwari, who was a key protest organizer in Duhok and was arrested initially in May 2020 and detained for more than two weeks before being released. He was then rearrested in August and remains behind bars.

UNAMI and OHCHR issued a list of eleven detailed recommendations for the authorities in the Kurdistan Region to implement, including ending harassment and threats against journalists and activists, ensuring that criminal law is not used as a tool to limit freedom of expression, and investigating all allegations of torture against journalists and activists.

The KRG’s Office of the Coordinator for International Advocacy responded to the report in an attached annex by doubling down on its usual justifications for its repressive actions, including by noting that the KRG faced “extraordinary challenges” last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In response the government has taken steps which restricted individual freedoms, but which it considered essential for the protection of public health,” the KRG said.

As early as April 17, 2020, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was calling on the authorities in the Kurdistan Region to refrain from using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to arrest journalists.

(NRT Digital Media)