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President of Kurdish region opposes restrictive new press bill

(CPJ/IFEX) - The following is a CPJ press release:

IRAQ: KRG President Barzani opposes new press bill

New York, December 17, 2007 - The president of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said today that he will reject a restrictive new press bill that was approved by the regional parliament on December 11.

President Masoud Barzani told a delegation from the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate (KJS) on Monday that he would not sign the bill once it reached his desk, pledging instead to send it back to parliament for revision, KJS head Farhad Awni told CPJ. Awni, who led a KJS delegation that met with Barzani this morning, expressed concern about the press bill, particularly several restrictions that were added prior to its approval last week. In rejecting the measure, Barzani stated "his full support for press freedom," a statement from the KJS said. It was unclear when debate would resume on the measure; Awni said it could take at least another 10 days before Barzani receives and vetoes the recently approved measure.

Parliament's approval of the new press bill on Tuesday triggered a storm of criticism among Iraqi Kurdish journalists. They objected to increased financial penalties and restrictive provisions that were added to a draft version of the bill that had been under discussion among journalists and members of parliament for several months. The approved bill reportedly stipulates fines of up to 10 million Iraqi dinars (US$8,200) for journalists found guilty of a number of vague offenses such disturbing security, spreading fear, or encouraging terrorism. (Some news reports said that fines could reach 20 million Iraqi dinars for newspapers.) The earlier version of the bill prescribed much lower fines for similarly vague offenses.

The bill passed by parliament contained other restrictive provisions not included in the early draft, including amendments that would allow the government to suspend newspapers and a requirement that editors-in-chief be members of the KJS, according to journalists who watched the parliamentary vote live on local television. Journalists also said the law would allow members of the press to be tried for criminal offenses under other Iraqi laws that allow for imprisonment.

"We welcome President Barzani's decision to reject this oppressive law, and we still believe that the KRG has a chance to enact model legislation for the region" said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "But much more needs to be done. Any legislation must conform to international press freedom standards and do away with vague prohibitions and other needless, restrictive provisions."

In meetings with KRG officials in Arbil in November, CPJ expressed concern about the early draft of the bill, noting that even those lower penalties could be used to debilitate newspapers. The 14-article draft, though minimally restrictive when compared with draconian media laws that prevail throughout the Middle East, subjected journalists to fines of between 1 and 2 million dinars (US$800 and 1,600) for publishing news that "disturbs security, spreads fear, or causes harm to people," or that "encourages terrorism and sows hatred," or that runs counter to "public morals." Article 7 prescribed the same fines for newspapers that do not provide corrections for publishing "untrue information." It is unclear who would decide what constitutes incorrect news; the provision is open to abuse in a climate where party officials frequently condemn newspapers for what they publish. Given the tenuous financial situation of independent papers - several operate at losses or barely break even - the elastic language of such articles could be exploited by pro-party judges to put critical newspapers out of business.

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