Where did press freedom violations happen in the Kurdistan Region in 2023 and who was responsible?

11-02-2024 05:49

Peregraf- by Winthrop Rodgers

Violations of freedom of expression and the press are a persistent problem in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. According to a recently released report from watchdog Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, nearly five violations took place on average each week in 2023.

At its heart, this is a political problem. The violations are not a naturally occurring phenomenon or the result of deficient training for the security forces. Instead, they are directed by powerful political parties and politicians who hope to prevent coverage of news events. The violence, preventions, and repression are anti-democratic and undermine the rule of law. They are contrary to the public interest.

Peregraf has conducted an analysis of the 2023 Metro Center report to dig below the top-line numbers and identify specific trends. This investigation focuses on the locations where press freedom violations took place, who committed them, against which outlets, and the apparent political affiliation of those involved. It found that:

* Press freedom violations remained high in 2023, despite an overall decrease from 2022.

* While the total number of violations decreased 42.2%, the total number of incidents where a violation occurred only decreased by 20.4%. This means that the frequency with which violations happened was only slightly down from the previous year.

* Erbil governorate saw an increase in incidents, despite a drop overall across the Kurdistan Region. The governorate, which is controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), accounted for half (50%) of all incidents. Incidents decreased in Duhok and Sulaymaniyah governorates.

* KDP-affiliated security forces and officials were responsible for 61% of all incidents. Those affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were the second-worst violators.

* Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) remained far and away the most targeted outlet.

* Outlets affiliated with the KDP and the PUK saw a decrease in the number of incidents against their journalists.

This analysis for 2023 builds on a similar piece that looked at violations in 2022, published by The Nesar Record and assisted by Peregraf. Both articles use Metro Center’s reports as the basis for building out a dataset and the same methodological analysis. This allows for comparison of the data to identify trends.

Incidents versus violations

The Metro Center report listed 249 violations made against 274 journalists and media outlets last year, compared with 431 violations against 301 journalists and media outlets in 2022. This constituted a 42.2% reduction in the total number of violations. As with every annual Metro Center report, this is almost certainly an undercount, given that some journalists choose not to report incidents to the watchdog. Even accounting for the drop and the undercount, the sheer number of violations was still quite high in 2023: there were nearly five (4.8) violations per week on average.

In its top-line accounting, Metro Center counts the overall number of violations, rather than specific incidents. So, if three journalists from an outlet are detained in a single incident, this counts as three violations. While this approach captures the overall impact of press freedom violations, counting and analyzing the number of incidents does a better job of showing the frequency, location, and the parties involved in restricting the work of the media. Metro Center lists in bullet-point format all of the incidents covered in the report that contribute to the calculation of violations, making a tally of incidents possible.

In 2023, Metro Center identified 109 separate incidents where at least one press freedom violation occurred. This is lower than the 137 incidents in 2022 and represents a 20.4% decrease. The lower number of violations meant that fewer journalists were directly affected, but there was a less impressive drop in the number of times that various parties acted to restrict freedom of the press. In an average month, there were only about two fewer incidents in 2023 than the previous year.


Where are incidents occurring?

Metro Center identified 54 press freedom incidents in Erbil governorate in 2023, or fully half of the total and by far the most of any governorate. In fact, this was an increase from the 43 incidents in Erbil in 2022.

The KDP administers the governorate, but Erbil city serves as the capital of the Kurdistan Region and, therefore, the PUK has a presence there. On three occasions, reporters from Bwar News were prevented from covering meetings at the PUK Politburo office in the city. Additionally, there were two incidents in Koya, which is in Erbil governorate but controlled by the PUK. Even accounting for these, there was an increase in the number of incidents attributable to the KDP in Erbil from 2022.



The only other place to record an increase was Halabja, the Kurdistan Region’s smallest governorate. It saw an increase from three (3) incidents in 2022 to six (6) incidents in 2023. It is controlled by the PUK.

Duhok and Sulaymaniyah governorates each saw decreases in the number of incidents. There were 27 incidents in Duhok, which is part of the KDP zone. This constituted a 36% decrease from 2022, when there were 42 incidents.

In Sulaymaniyah, the number of incidents decreased by 51%: There were 21 in 2023, down from 43 the previous year. A large portion of the violations in 2022 occurred in August, when PUK-affiliated security forces arrested journalists covering a protest organized by the New Generation Movement, resulting in 13 incidents.

During the second half of 2023, there were dozens of protests in the PUK zone by striking teachers. Unlike the previous year, the security forces took a hands-off approach to policing the demonstrations. As a result, there was just one press freedom violation related to the protests, when the PUK security forces prevented a KNN reporting team from covering a demonstration on November 5.

As a caveat, the number of incidents involving PUK government or party officials increased from two (2) to nine (9). This was the result of more incidents where journalists were prevented from covering events at PUK party offices, including the Politburo office in Erbil.

Overall in 2023, 72% of the total number of incidents took place in the KDP zone, 28% in the PUK zone, and 1% in Kirkuk, which is located in federal Iraq. The previous year, the breakdown was 63% in KDP areas, 35% in PUK areas, and 1% outside the Kurdistan Region.




Who was responsible?

The security forces affiliated with the KDP were responsible for the most incidents in 2023, with 58 incidents total. A further nine (9) incidents involved KDP party or affiliated government officials. As a result, KDP agents committed 61% of the total incidents identified by Metro Center.

Overall, PUK agents were responsible for 27% of the incidents, including 20 incidents committed by the PUK’s security forces and nine (9) by PUK party or government officials.

The balance was committed by civilians (7 incidents), non-Kurdistan Region groups (2), unknown individuals (2), or other Kurdish political parties (2) — the New Generation Movement and the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party (KSDP) were each responsible for one incident.

Compared with 2022, the KDP, the PUK, and other categories all saw declines in raw numbers, reflecting the fewer number of incidents overall. However, the KDP’s share of the total increased from 53% to 61% overall.




Who was targeted?

As with the previous year, journalists affiliated with NRT suffered the most incidents. Thirty-six (36) incidents involved NRT directly in 2023, down by just three (3) from 2022. The channel is affiliated with the New Generation Movement, the Kurdistan Region’s largest opposition party. Journalists from Speda experienced the second most violations with ten (10). It is linked with the Kurdistan Islamist Union (KIU), another opposition group.

In contrast, incidents targeting outlets affiliated with the ruling parties fell from nearly one-third of the total in 2022 to just 18% in 2023. Remarkably, Metro Center recorded no incidents directly targeting journalists from Rudaw or Kurdistan 24, both of which are backed by senior KDP leaders. The number of incidents where more than three outlets were involved rose slightly last year.



The world has taken notice of the violations against journalists in the Kurdistan Region. Indeed, freedom of expression has become a major area of tension between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its foreign partners. In a February 1 Facebook post, the US Consulate in Erbil said that it was “concerned about the recent backsliding of press freedom.”

The KRG is extremely sensitive to this criticism. The consulate’s post prompted a rejoinder from KRG Spokesperson Peshawa Hawramani, who claimed that the consulate’s public statement contrasted with what US diplomats say behind closed doors. He alleged that they had expressed appreciation for a drop in violations against journalists, citing the 42% decrease in violations outlined in the Metro Center report.

Hawramani is a former KDP MP and acts as the mouthpiece for KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s KDP-led government. The KDP is hardly in a position to claim credit for any decline. It is responsible for the vast majority of violations and oversaw an increase in the number of incidents in Erbil governorate, while other areas saw a decline.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) there are four (4) journalists currently imprisoned in the Kurdistan Region: Guhdar Zebari, Sherwan Sherwani, Qaraman Shukri, and Sleman Mohammed Ahmed.

While the first three have been imprisoned for several years, Ahmed was only arrested in October 2023. He works for RojNews, which is supportive of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has not had a public trial.

Fewer violations and incidents are a positive development, but press freedom will continue to be a major concern in the Kurdistan Region until the numbers drop far below the current level and journalists are no longer imprisoned without due process.

If US diplomats are indeed praising KRG officials for what is a relatively modest decline in the number of incidents, they should reassess their approach.