Newswatch | Newswatch

You are here

Lawsuits raining down on Kurdistan news media

Promises unkept: President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Masud Barzani speaks to the press in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. Barzani confirmed the Kurds, the bloc that came in fourth place in the election, will retain the presidency the second highest position in Iraq's political structure.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) voiced clear support for media freedom during his party’s congress on December 13 but in recent months more and more lawsuits have been brought against the Kurdish media, and not just the independent ones. Newspaper editors nowadays seem to be spending their time in the corridors outside courtrooms.

In a ruling issued on December 12, a court in Erbil fined magazine Rega 35 million Iraqi dinars (22,660 euros) for a report suggesting that the KDP’s security force were involved in last May’s murder of journalist Sardasht Osman. Referring to Barzani, the magazine went so far as to write: “If a president cannot protect the lives of his fellow citizens, he should resign.” The ruling was the result of a lawsuit that KDP general secretary Fazil Mirani brought against the magazine on September 23 in which he had demanded 500 million Iraqi dinars (324,000 euros) in damages.

“This fine is exorbitant,” Rega owner and editor Soran Omer said, referring to the 35 million dinars. “This is more about revenge than a fair and just decision. The trial lasted more than three months but everything was settled in just eight days. The magazine was prosecuted under provisions of the Iraqi civil code instead of the press code in force in Kurdistan, which provides of a maximum fine of 17 million dinars.”

It is the biggest fine ever imposed on a publication in the KRG region and poses a real threat to media freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan. Why did the judge agree to the magazine’s being prosecuted on a basis other than Kurdistan’s press code? Such a large fine would result in the publication’s immediate demise. If confirmed on appeal, it will set a very dangerous precedent for freedom of expression in the autonomous Kurdish region.

“The court that handled the Rega case is not independent,” Omer added. “It is clearly in the KDP’s service. The expert who determined the size of the fine is also a party member. He was one of the KDP candidates in the lawyers union elections two months ago. They can always arrest me but I won’t give them a cent. The verdict was clearly biased in favour of the KDP. The aim of such practices is to thwart the efforts of those who defend freedom of expression and independent media. They know perfectly well that we are not rich.”

Anwar Hussein Bazgr, who heads the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Union of Journalists, told Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) he was very worried about what was happening to Rega. “We believe in the rule of law. We continue to think that that the region’s journalists and news media should be prosecuted under Kurdistan’s press code, not other Iraqi laws or KRG laws.”

An Erbil court fined the Standard newspaper 6 million Iraqi dinars (3,900 euros) on December 13 as a result off lawsuit brought by the agriculture ministry. Massud Abdulkaliq, the newspaper’s owner and editor, said the decision made him very concerned about the KRG judicial system’s independence.

Shwan Muhammad, the editor of the non-partisan weekly Awene, said he had received seven court summonses in the past week as a result of complaints filed by Naliya, a company whose owners have close ties with Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which governs Iraqi Kurdistan in coalition with the KDP.

The lawsuits were prompted by a 28 September article claiming that newly-built houses in a well-to-do residential district of Sulaymaniyah called “German Village” did not comply with safety regulations issued by the authorities after a fire in the Soma Hotel on the night of July 16 that left 27 dead. Awene reported that the safety committee had publicly declared the houses to be in non-compliance with the latest regulations but the public notices that the safety committee posted on the walls of “German Village” were torn down by the company.

“When we wrote this article, we interviewed the company, residents and the Sulaymaniyah governorate’s engineers,” Muhammad said. “We did not defame anyone. We just did our job as journalists. But when you write about this company you clearly risk being sued the next day.” Muhammad added that Naliya also asked the residents to sue Awene, and two of the seven summonses were as a result of complaints filed by residents. In all, Naliya has brought ten suits against Awene since April.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), a party created in 1994 that has seven seats in the KRG parliament and three in the National Assembly in Baghdad, demanded enormous sums in damages from the pro-KDP weekly Bas and a singer in two unrelated lawsuits.

The suit against Bas was prompted by an article the weekly published on November 23 that included what was purported to be a copy of a letter from the KIU’s leader, Salahaddin Muhammad, to Oussama Tikriti, the general secretary of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) requesting 350,000 dollars to help the KIU overcome its financial difficulties and embark on new projects.

The KIU filed a complaint with an Erbil court the next day accusing Bas of libel and publishing false documents, and demanding 2 billion Iraqi dinars (1.3 million euros) in damages. Originally supposed to issue a ruling on 16 December, the court postponed its decision until December 28.

KIU spokesman Salahadin Babakr told RSF the party decided to sue Bas “because it isn’t the first time that it has published false documents smearing the party and its representatives without reason.” He added: “According to the Iraqi criminal code, when a newspaper libels or insults someone, the person concerned can sue for damages. If these newspapers aren’t afraid of publishing false documents, then we should let the courts decide.”

KIU lawyer Muhammad Hawdiyani said such publications posed a danger to democracy and that it was out of a concern to defend democracy that the KIU filed its lawsuit.

The KIU’s lawsuit is also nonetheless based on the more repressive provisions of the Iraqi criminal code rather than on the KRG press code. Bas editor Barham Ali meanwhile told RSF he was convinced of the authenticity of the disputed document: “The document we published clearly showed that the KIU requested 350,000 dollars in aid from the IIP. We are convinced of its authenticity. We got by contacting the KIU itself.”

In the other KIU lawsuit, filed by the party’s satellite TV station Speda, the young singer Loka Zahir was sued for 1 billion dollars in damages for deliberate naming Speda in one of her videos although she quickly apologised for the “mistake.” Hawdiyani, the KIU’s lawyer, said the singer’s reference to Speda was insulting because of the station’s Muslim values. The head of the station, Bukhari Jamil, finally agreed to withdraw the lawsuit after initially insisting that the apology was not sufficient.

Many journalists and media in Iraqi Kurdistan say they are increasingly concerned about the KIU’s restrictive view of press freedom. “They tend to imitate the KDP,” one said ironically.

Darbaz Younis, the editor of Bas’ arts section, told RSF he had received death threats for criticising two of the presenters on pro-KDP Channel 4 television, one of whom, Avin Aso, is also the station’s director general. “A group of individuals armed with knives came with the intention of attacking me,” he said. “They threatened me but fortunately I was not alone and they did not dare carry out their threat.” Younis filed a complaint on 13 December.

Date posted: December 20, 2010 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 162