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IRAQI KURDISTAN NO LONGER THE BASTION OF PRESS FREEDOM, CPJ FINDS

As a contributor to Kurdistanpost, a popular Kurdish news website, Nasseh Abdel Raheem Rashid has railed against the actions of crooked politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was only a matter of time before Rashid's criticism would get him noticed. As he walked through the market of his hometown Halabja last October, four armed men in military garb forced him into a pickup, bound him up and covered his head with a sack. He was then dropped off at an unknown location, but not before being beaten and threatened at gunpoint to stop working or be killed.

The image of Iraqi Kurdistan as a place of freedom and tolerance following the 1991 Gulf War is being severely tarnished by a disturbing rise in attacks on journalists like the assault on Rashid over the past three years - often at the hands of officials, says "The Other Iraq", a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The mountainous region in northern Iraq is home to a "small but combative independent press" that regularly challenges the region's main parties by publishing bold stories about government corruption and human rights abuses, says CPJ.

But their increasing presence on the media scene has triggered a spike in assaults, detentions and prosecutions of journalists, with the most forceful attacks targeting those who have reported critically on high-ranking officials like the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) Masoud Barzani and fellow Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani - Iraq's President.

In a meeting with Barzani last November, a CPJ delegation urged him to publicly investigate the spate of violent acts of aggression against the press.

Barzani bemoaned what he called the lack of professionalism in the fledgling industry but said it would be "intolerable" for a journalist to be attacked over a free expression issue. "The security forces (are) interested in terrorism - that is their main objective," he said.

CPJ also expressed concern about restrictive press legislation passed by the Kurdistan parliament late last year but vetoed by Barzani. The bill would have allowed the government to impose heavy fines and close newspapers. CPJ told Barzani that parliament has an opportunity to devise model press legislation for the region by eliminating criminal defamation, jail sentences for journalists, and other provisions that violate international standards.

"The Other Iraq", available in English, Kurdish and Arabic, is based on a two-week fact-finding mission to Arbil and Sulaymania last November. Read it here: http://www.cpj.org/other.iraq/index.html

Also read a front-line take on covering war in "The Biggest Story", which includes interviews with veteran journalists in Iraq. Both reports are available in the latest edition of CPJ's "Dangerous Assignments", available in PDF here: http://www.cpj.org/Briefings/2008/DA_spring_08.pdf

(20 May 2008)

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