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Iraq, Kurdistan Region slammed in new report on press freedom

Iraq ranks 18 from the bottom of a list of countries classified by their freedom of the press, with dangers having reportedly “grown” for journalists since the October 2019 anti-government protests.

Lives of journalists in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region are at “risk” in protest coverage and corruption investigations, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its annual World Press Freedom report, published on Tuesday.

Journalists are at the risk of being “harassed, abducted, physically attacked or even killed by unidentified militias” in Iraq and “the state’s powerlessness increases the dangers and makes it impossible to determine whether what the many militias are doing suits the government, whether the government has given them the go-ahead, or whether it has no control over the situation,” RSF said.

RSF has previously reported that four journalists were killed in Iraq while covering protests in 2020. Three were killed with gunshots to their heads and one trying to flee from clashes between security forces and protesters.  RSF in the new report said murdering journalists goes “unpunished” due to lack of, or futile investigations.

The report evaluates press freedom in 180 countries, in which Iraq ranks 163 on the index, with the Middle East generally accused of undermining “the already beleaguered media freedom” which might “leave lasting scars on the media landscape,” says RSF, pointing to an “increased authoritarianism” in response to the situation of public health, economy and politics.

Regarding the Kurdistan Region, RSF reported there are “no limits to the persecution of journalists who criticise its ruling families. They are jailed on charges of spying or endangering state security on the basis of confessions extracted under torture or by means of threats.”

This comes after seven activists and journalists were among more than two dozen people arrested in Duhok last year during anti-government protests over unpaid wages. They were accused of destabilizing the Kurdistan Region’s stability, five of them were sentenced to six years in prison by an Erbil court on February 16.

The sentencing of journalists often on vague charges of endangering the “independence, unity or integrity of the country, or its economic, political, military or security interests” is “alarming.”

Iraq and the Region were also slammed for banning media outlets from covering protests.

“Media were accused of inciting rebellion and encouraging irresponsible protesting in the country’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region,” RSF reported on Monday, shedding light on the opposition channel NRT being banned from broadcasting by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the prosecution of independent journalists.

In December last year, Rudaw Media Network and several other outlets were issued a warning by the KRG’s Ministry of Youth and Culture for broadcasting material that incites “violence or sabotage or the disturbing of social cohesion,” for showing “scenes of violence” and the “burning down of political party offices and government buildings” after protests erupted on December 2 over unpaid civil servant salaries.

Kurdish authorities have had a questionable history when it comes to the freedom of the press. They have come under sustained criticism from international media watchdogs, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

According to a local Metro Center for Journalists Rights and Advocacy report published in January, nearly 400 violations were committed against journalists and media outlets in the Kurdistan Region in 2020.

Rudaw English has reached out to Dindar Zebari, the KRG’s Coordinator for International Advocacy, but has yet to receive a response.