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Baghdad and Erbil governments suppress free speech and press: HRW

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a new report on Monday  documenting suppression of press freedoms and freedom of speech in Iraq by security and intelligence services of both the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The rights watchdog investigated 33 reported cases of individuals who were threatened, arrested, or prosecuted for participating in protests against government corruption, or reporting on it in the media.

Iraq is consistently ranked near the top of the list of the most corrupt nations in the world, according to indices by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Through vague laws which criminalize “insulting” government officials,  the government is able to suppress and intimidate those who speak out against the government though the police, courts, and the powerful intelligence services.

Ammar al-Khazaali, a 30-year-old social activist from al-Qadissiya province south of Baghdad, was arrested 14 times over the course of 15 months between June 2016 and September 2017, according to the report.

Public officials brought repeated legal suits for defamation “as a method of intimidation,” the report read.

Though the courts dismissed all of the charges, the toll was heavy on Khazaali. “The constant arrests, being handcuffed in front of people I know, it was all very emotionally exhausting and sometimes brought me to tears,” he told Human Rights Watch.

HRW has also reported several cases of journalists and others accused of speaking out against detentions and disappearances in the Kurdistan Region.

With the swearing-in of a new cabinet last year, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani vowed to make anti-corruption efforts central to its platform.

“Over the four years that I have monitored human rights in Iraq, KRG officials have often touted their superiority to the central government in Baghdad in respecting human rights,” Belkis Wille, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch told Rudaw English on June 15. “But as our recent findings show, that apparently does not include the rights to criticize the government.”

While the KRG has separate legislation to Baghdad, Human Rights Watch has also accused the KRG of using laws to suppress free speech,  including a local Press Law and Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment, which, among others,  criminalizes using cell phones, email or the internet to threaten someone, use profanity, spread misinformation or share private information – even if it is true.

Speaking to Rudaw English by telephone, KRG spokesperson Dindar Zebari said that while Baghdad has cut off all ties with Human Rights Watch, Kurdish officials have kept lines of communication.

“I personally communicate with Human Rights Watch on a regular basis and advise the relevant authorities when there is a concern raised,” he told Rudaw English.

In a letter responding to HRW’s claims, which was included in the report, Zebari wrote: “[the] KRG is committed to the preservation of journalists’ rights and […] endorses journalism principles and conceives them as the cornerstones of democratic practices.”

The government’s official response acknowledged the prosecution of journalists under the Law of Misuse of Telecommunications, but did not satisfy HRW’s researchers.

“It is disappointing that authorities did not attempt to answer the specific questions laid out in our letter, nor follow-up with more information,” Wille added.

It remains to be seen whether Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, himself a former head of Iraq’s intelligence services, will implement reforms demanded by the protest movement and address endemic corruption and human rights violations.

“We hope to see Mustafa al-Kadhimi directing security forces to end intimidation, harassment, arrest, and assault of journalists and others for exercising their right to free expression and investigate credible allegations of threats or attacks by government employees or others against critics,” Wille told Rudaw English.

Some of the laws used to prosecute journalists pre-date the US invasion in 2003 that toppled then-President Saddam Hussein’s government and completely reshaped the country and its institutions. However, according to HRW’s latest report, the stifled media environment remains pervasive.

“These incidents prove that the KRG authorities – like their counterparts in Baghdad – have restricted free expression in ways that chill public discussion and debate,” Wille told Rudaw English. “If the KRG really wants to set itself apart, the authorities need to stop arresting and prosecuting those they disagree with and start listening to them instead.” Source