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Iraq: Kurdistan Region Grapples With Draft Press Law

Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani (epa) Iraq's Kurdistan regional parliament passed a controversial press law on December 11 that purports to be one of the freest in the region but in fact imposes steep fines on journalists that publish material critical of the government or Kurdish officials.

Criticism quickly mounted based on doubts about the commitment of the regional government and the journalists' syndicate to protecting reporters' rights, as well as local instances of violence or intimidation targeting journalists. Those objections appear to be increasing pressure on regional President Mas'ud Barzani to return the bill to parliament instead of signing it into law.

News website "Kurdish Aspect" reported that journalists can be fined up to 10 million Iraqi dinars ($8,250) and newspapers can be fined up to 20 million dinars for articles that are seen to create instability, spread fear and intimidation, encourage terror, provoke religious belief of any sects, or insult slogans, symbols, or personalities. "Kurdish Aspect" also reported that the law allows for the imprisonment of journalists, as well as the closing of newspapers for up to six months and the seizing of copies in circulation.

Kurdish officials had claimed during consideration of the bill that it would prevent the jailing of journalists that was allowed under a Saddam Hussein-era law.

The bill was drafted by the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, which says journalists will no longer need government permission to publish newspapers. Instead, media outlets will only need to register with the syndicate. Critics say the syndicate is too closely aligned with the regional government and is run by members of the two leading parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). "I believe if the [syndicate] is there to protect my rights as a journalist and defend me, then they are almost nonexistent, because they mainly represent political parties in the region," Rahman Gharib, a correspondent for the independent weekly "Hawlati," told IPS News in January.

Indeed, the Kurdistan regional government has not been kind to journalists in recent years. "If we look at the court cases against writers and journalists in recent weeks and months, we see that none of the verdicts has been in favor of a journalist or writer," Sarwat Ali wrote in the independent newspaper "Awene" on May 30, 2006. "On the contrary, in all the cases, the officials have been the heroes.... This is a new trend in the officials' fights against writers and the continuation of the police...preventing people from holding pens."

Kurdish intellectual and Austrian citizen Kamal Sayyid Qadir was jailed by the KDP in 2005 for Internet articles he wrote criticizing Barzani's regional administration. Qadir was sentenced to 30 years in prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership" before a new trial in March 2006 reduced his sentence to 18 months. A week later, regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani pardoned Qadir. But it is difficult to say whether Qadir would have received a retrial, let alone a pardon, had there not been intense publicity surrounding his case.

Independent newspapers like "Hawlati" have been targeted by the Kurdish authorities for articles critical of the regime. Two "Hawlati" editors got six-month prison terms in 2006 for allegedly defaming PUK leader Umar Fattah. As in Qadir's case, the sentences would likely have been much harsher had there not been an intense international media campaign in their support.

Reporters have complained in the past of discriminatory treatment, including confiscations or violence, that they say more politically connected journalists were spared. Several journalists said they were beaten, arrested, and had their equipment confiscated in March 2006 following a government crackdown on demonstrators who violently interrupted a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the Hussein regime's chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah. Journalists caught up in the melee reported being beaten by both security forces and demonstrators. Journalists working for independent Kurdish media accused security forces of destroying or confiscating their cameras and video recorders, claiming that party-owned media were spared such treatment and implying that the PUK and KDP would prevent their own press from broadcasting footage of the incident. The Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate supported a demand by the authorities that journalists cooperate with an investigation into the incident by turning over any notes, photographs, and footage taken at the demonstration.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a November 5 report that its representatives had discussed the draft press law with several Kurdish officials and representatives of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate during a two-week fact-finding mission to Iraq. The CPJ noted the draft law that it saw was "minimally restrictive when compared with draconian media laws that prevail throughout the Middle East." The draft it received did not call for the detention or imprisonment of journalists. The organization warned, however, that the draft outlined "a host of vague prohibitions." Referring to Article 7, which calls for fining newspapers that do not provide corrections for publishing "untrue information," the CPJ said, "It is unclear who would decide what constitutes incorrect news." It also suggested that, given the tenuous financial situation of independent newspapers in the region, the law could be exploited by pro-party judges to close down newspapers critical of the ruling parties.

The CPJ also expressed concern over the rising number of physical attacks on journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as arbitrary detention of reporters by security forces and the use of the region's courts to harass journalists. Several journalists have reported being abducted and beaten by men wearing military-style uniforms, which suggests the abductors could have been members of the Asayish security service. "[Kurdistan regional government] officials should publicly condemn these reprehensible attacks and launch serious inquiries to bring the perpetrators to justice. The failure to do so would suggest that Iraqi Kurdish officials condone such attacks," the CPJ said.

Critics note that journalists can still be jailed under the region's counterterrorism law, which says anyone who intentionally publishes or broadcasts news or statements that create fear or intimidation or threatens the government can be jailed for up to 15 years in prison. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) said in October that "Hawlati" will face charges under the antiterrorism law for "intimidating the public," based on a September report that Al-Qaeda was becoming active in the region.

Kurdistan regional President Barzani must sign the law before it can take effect. Official sources from within the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate told RFE/RL on December 13 that the syndicate had sent an official request to Barzani asking him to return the draft press law to parliament. The PUK's central information office also reportedly asked for an emergency meeting with Barzani and the Journalists Syndicate to revise the law. Meanwhile, the editors-in-chief of the independent newspapers "Awene," "Hawlati," and "Rozhnama" called on journalists to hold a demonstration against the law on December 14.

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