Freedom of expression in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been increasingly curtailed over the past year, according to a UN report issued today. Critics of public authorities have risked not only intimidation, restrictions on their movements and arbitrary arrests, but some were also charged with defamation, while others, more recently, were prosecuted under national security laws.
The report, by the UN Human Rights Office and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), documents a concerning pattern, observed from March 2020 to April 2021, of people being targeted for exercising their legitimate right to report on or criticize the actions of the public authorities.
“The pattern of repression documented in this report is deeply worrying, highlighting not only the threats and intimidation of critics, but also the chilling effect such actions can have on others seeking transparency and to hold public authorities to account,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
While recognizing that the Kurdistan Regional authorities are facing uniquely challenging domestic, regional and international circumstances, the key findings of this report are of serious concern, particularly the behaviour of the security apparatus, the selective application of laws and the lack of compliance with relevant legal procedures and international human rights standards.
“Recent years have seen progress towards a democratic Kurdistan Region where freedom of expression and the rule of law are valued. But democratic societies need media, activists and critics to be able to report on public issues without censorship or fear, and citizens also have a right to be informed,” Bachelet stressed.
“Transparency, accountability and openness to questioning is vital for any healthy democracy,” the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq and head of UNAMI, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, added.
The High Commissioner and the UN Iraq Special Representative both said that they are encouraged by the continuing cooperation of the Kurdistan Regional authorities with their offices, noting that report and its recommendations are part of an ongoing dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government to promote human rights and foster accountability for human rights violations and redress for victims.
Among its recommendations, the report urges the Kurdistan Regional authorities to take immediate steps to fully protect the right to freedom of expression and to end harassment, intimidation and reprisals against journalists, human rights defenders and activists. It also calls on the authorities to ensure that criminal law is not used as a tool to limit freedom of expression, including by refraining from arresting and/or detaining individuals lawfully expressing dissent and/or discontent. In addition, existing laws should be amended to provide clear definitions of prohibited speech and all restrictions on freedom of expression set out in domestic legislation should be consistent with relevant international human rights standards.
The report was shared in advance with the Federal Government of Iraq and Kurdistan Regional Government and includes the response from the Kurdistan Government as an annex.
What is the story?
Seven months after the arrest of more than 20 civil society activists and journalists in the Kurdistan Region, in February of this year, a court in Erbil sentenced five of these activists to six years in prison on charges of forming chat groups and spying for foreign countries and organizations.
The ruling sparked a wave of discontent, but in late April the prison sentences of the media activists were upheld, protesting not only in the Kurdistan region but also at the United Nations and the Western consulate.
Notably, one of the charges against these journalists and civil activists is visiting and meeting with the German and American consulates in Erbil.
However, these two countries are not only not enemies of the Kurdistan Region, but also supporters of the Kurdistan Region.
Critics of the regional government believe that the ruling is more political and also an attempt to suppress critics and restrict freedom of expression in the Kurdistan region.