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Independent journalists harassed, attacked in Kurdistan election run-up

(RSF/IFEX) - Cases of harassment and physical violence against independent and opposition journalists have been increasing in frequency in Iraqi Kurdistan in the run-up to legislative elections scheduled for 6 March 2010.

Commenting on these press freedom violations, Kurdish intellectual and writer Aso Jabar told Reporters Without Borders: "The Kurdish authorities are showing their darkest side through these acts of repression. Real democracies do not oppress their people for using the right to free speech."

The press freedom organisation has learned of the following violations since late January.

Four incidents took place on 14 February:

• Reporter Bryar Namiq of Kurdish News Network (KNN), an opposition satellite TV station, and a KNN cameraman were accosted by police in Sulaymaniyah while covering a demonstration by pensioners for more benefits and were detained for an hour. "We got permission from the head of the pensions department to cover this protest," Namiq told Reporters Without Borders. "But when we began filming, the police pounced on us and threatened to give us a beating if we continued. One of the policemen grabbed the camera and arrested us."

• A KNN cameraman was prevented from covering a story in Raniya, a town 120 km south of Sulaymaniyah.

• The local branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – part of the coalition that controls the Kurdistan Regional Government – prevented a crew from Gorran (Change), a local television station, from filming in Kirkuk.

• Bodyguards of Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani prevented Ibrahim Ali, the editor of the independent magazine "Livin", from entering the headquarters of the PUK/KDP coalition in Erbil to take photos. They said it was because the magazine was too critical of the ruling coalition.

The police threatened to burn down the homes of employees of the satellite TV station Speda in Halabja (75 km east of Sulaymaniyah) on 12 February if they posted photos of policemen brandishing placards and flags of the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan/ Kurdistan Democratic Party coalition. The TV station, which belongs to the Kurdish Islamic Union (Yekgirtu), did nonetheless post the photos on its website and filed a complaint against the city's police.

Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Ahmad Salih filed a legal action last week against Kurdish journalist Rebwar Karim Wali, the former editor of the daily "Hawler", over an article he wrote for the independent weekly "Awene" ("Mirror") last month accusing the prime minister of spending more time dining in chic restaurants than in his office trying to deal with the needs of his fellow citizens. Dr. Salih also filed a complaint against the weekly's editor, Shwan Mohammed.

Wali maintains that the lawsuit is illegal. "In no way does my article insult the prime minister, nor does it jeopardise national security," he told Reporters Without Borders. "I just said he needs to turn the election promises he made last July into concrete actions." He said he received a phone call asking him to report to the police. "But I told them I would not go as long as I had not received a written notification."

Known for supporting President Barzani, the KDP's leader, Wali said he has often been lambasted in the past by media that support Dr. Salih, who heads the PUK. Although Mohammed said he published Dr. Salih's response in "Awene", he was summoned to appear on 15 February before a court, which released him on payment of 500,000 dinars (314 euros) in bail.

Nabaz Goran, the editor of the independent Kurdish-language monthly "Jehan" ("World"), was physically attacked for the second time in the past three months on 9 February in Sulaymaniyah. "I was in the district of Sabunkaran when two youths attacked me," he told Reporters Without Borders. "Street traders ran after them but failed to catch them. I called the police. If they want to arrest them, they could easily do so because one of them was wounded in the face."

Asked why he was assaulted, Goran replied: "You don't need any reason to be attacked in this country." Aged 32, Goran was beaten about the head and face by unidentified assailants on 29 October in Erbil.

Religious leaders filed a complaint against Abdelrahman Tayeb Bamarni, the editor of "Chavder", a Kurdish weekly published by the PUK, and writer Hoshang Sheikh Mohammed on 27 January in Dahuk province over a poem published in the magazine deemed to be an offence to Islam.

Although Kurdistan's press law contains no provision for the detention of journalists, they were arrested and kept in police custody for day until they were released on bail. The PUK's "office of democratic organisations" meanwhile decided to close the magazine for two weeks.

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