The United Nations has accused authorities in the Kurdistan Region of using targeted criminal charges such as “defamation” and the misuse of technology to pursue journalists and has called for an end to “harassment” and to guarantee the law is not used against freedom of speech.
A report from UNAMI (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq) and the OHCHR (the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) said on Tuesday that from March 2020 to April 2021, the UN has “documented several cases of targeted criminal proceedings initiated against journalists from various media outlets, as well as activists posting on social media who have either reported on anti-government protests or been critical of the Kurdistan Regional authorities.”
Article 433 of the Iraqi Penal Code, which prohibits defamation, and Article 2 of the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment, which covers the spread of misinformation, have both been used to charge journalists and activists. The report stated, “Both these offenses are defined in broad and imprecise terms. Anyone convicted under these provisions could face a custodial sentence and/or a fine.”
The UN has urged authorities to ease the laws on defamation and to “ensure that the criminal law is only applied in the most serious defamation cases.” The United Nations has also called for the assurance of a fair trial for those charged with the offence and points to an “increasingly repressive pattern of active curtailment” of freedom of speech.
The Kurdistan Region’s appeal court upheld the ruling of five journalists and activists last week saying the men had intended to “target sensitive areas and establishments in the Kurdistan Region” after they were sentenced in February and put on trial for “endangering the national security of the Kurdistan Region.”
They were found guilty and sentenced to six years in jail, prompting outcry from media watchdogs and human rights groups.
Parliamentarian Ali Hama Saleh, who attended the trial at the time, told reporters outside the court that the only evidence against the men was a messenger group “in which journalistic and human rights information was exchanged.”
“Critics of public authorities have risked not only intimidation, movement restrictions and arbitrary arrest, but some were also charged with defamation, and others, more recently, were prosecuted under national security laws,” said Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the head of UNAMI and the UN Special Representative for Iraq. Hennis-Plasschaert described the development in the Kurdistan Region over the past year as “worrisome.”
The UN High Commission for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated in the report, “Recent years have seen progress towards a democratic Kurdistan Region where freedom of expression and the rule of law are valued,” but added “democratic societies need media, activists and critics to be able to report on public issues without censorship or fear.”
“Citizens have a right to be informed,” Bachelet noted.
Freedom of the press in the Kurdistan Region has been repeatedly questioned by local and international media watchdogs, especially recently, following rights violations including the imprisonment of journalists known for their anti-establishment writing.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in April criticized the KRG’s regard to press freedom saying there are “no limits to the persecution of journalists who criticize its ruling families.”
The UN has also urged authorities to “take immediate steps to end the practice of harassment” and refrain from using such laws “to limit freedom of expression.”
Rudaw English has reached out to the KRG Coordinator for International Advocacy and has not received a response at the time of publication.