Dozens of violations against journalists continue in the Kurdistan Region: Watchdog

Shkoi Kurdistan-

Kurdish security forces and unidentified gunmen were responsible for dozens of violations against journalists in the Kurdistan Region in the past three months, a local watchdog reported. The violations ranged from one incident of shooting to unjustified arrests, harassment, threats of violence, seizure of equipment, or preventing media workers from doing their jobs.

“Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy announced that during the three months of electoral campaigning and advance polling, 41 violations against 36 journalists were recorded,” the Sulaimani-based watchdog said on Friday. Most violations were unconnected to campaigning for Iraq’s October 10 parliamentary election, it added.

Metro Center was established in 2009 by a group of journalists and media activists with assistance from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been under fire for arresting and prosecuting a group of journalists and activists in Duhok province. The KRG accuses the defendants of endangering national security. The violations reported by Metro Center took place across the Kurdistan Region.

“Free and diverse press is an important factor in entrenching transparency and accountability and is the pillar of good governance,” Metro said in a statement. “Without media and the freedom for them to operate, we cannot speak about a transparent and fair election.”

The KRG’s Media and Information Department issued a statement on Friday asking security forces to facilitate the work of journalists covering the election. The KRG “acknowledges the importance of media coverage of the democratic process” and called on security forces and journalists to show mutual respect, it stated.

Metro acknowledged the KRG’s statement and, during advance voting on Friday, reported two violations. 

“We call on the KRG to respect the principles of democracy… this means respecting media freedom and the freedom to cover the election process as we approach the general election day,” Rahman Gharib told Rudaw English. “The KRG should respect the guidelines set by the Independent High Electoral Commission and allow media workers to do their jobs and prevent security forces from interfering in their work.”

The Center identified one incident of shooting in which shots were fired by unidentified gunmen in the air as a journalist was returning home in Sulaimani on July 18. The Asayish security service told the Center that the individuals had been identified. 

Journalists from NRT were subjected to the most violations according to Metro Center’s data. For instance, on September 27, an NRT journalist was threatened over the phone by a security official in Halabja area. On September 14, in Zakho, a team from NRT was prevented from covering a protest in the city.

Metro Center said it had some concerns about the coverage of some media outlets however overall there was an effort by media workers to be professional and fair. There are hundreds of media outlets in the Kurdistan Region, most of which are affiliated with political parties or businesses. There are a small number of independent or semi-independent outlets.

Concerns about press freedom in the Kurdistan Region have also been noted by international monitors. 

“Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service,” the US Department of State said in relation to the Kurdistan Region in its 2020 human rights report released in March.

“Throughout the IKR [Iraq Kurdistan Region] there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms,” it added.

In April the head of Metro Center Rahman Gharib met with Prime Minister Masrour Barzani in Erbil to discuss press freedom. “The Prime Minister underscored his commitment to journalistic freedom in all of its forms and called on the Kurdistan Regional Government and its agencies to support the work of journalists in line with government reforms to increase transparency and accountability,” a statement from the KRG said.

“Mr. Gharib briefed the Prime Minister on the agency’s current activities, thanking the Prime Minister for his support, and urged for greater protection of press freedom and freedom of information, which are key pillars of democracy that must be preserved,” it added.

Gharib told Rudaw English that staff from the Center in coordination with its international partners will closely observe the vote on Sunday when millions of Iraqis will cast a ballot.

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