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Mounting tension between ruling parties and journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the tension between Kurdistan's ruling parties and security forces, on the one hand, and its journalists and news media, on the other. Magazine editor Hemn Karim's detention for more than 24 hours on 18 September 2010 and a spate of libel actions are the latest examples of this fraught climate.

Reporters Without Borders takes the opportunity to remind Kurdistan's journalists of the importance of respecting professional ethics and of distinguishing between reporting the facts and defamatory allegations.

Nonetheless, a wave of defamation suits seems to be eroding press freedom, especially as they often are being brought after the legally-permitted period has expired. Under Kurdistan's press law, a legal action must be brought within 90 days but in most cases plaintiffs are not respecting the deadline and it is not being enforced by the courts.

Arbitrary arrest

Karim, the editor of the weekly magazine "Fshar", was arrested after participating in a news conference in the Palace Hotel in Sulaymaniyah on 18 September. Ironically, its purpose was to condemn all the violations against journalists and to defend freedom of opinion and expression in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. He was released at around 10 p.m. on 19 September after paying 250,000 dinars (approx. US$215) in bail.

The police said he was arrested for failing to respond to a court summons. Karim denied this. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), sued "Fshar" for 500 million dinars in damages on 22 August.

Spate of lawsuits

The KDP sued four other publications on 22 August as well: "Lvin Magazine", "Awene", "Hawlati" and "Rega".

"Awene" is being sued for 500 million dinars in damages over an article in issue 214 on 9 March headlined "Opposition parties say Erbil is no exception as regards electoral fraud", and a column by Aziz Rauf in the same issue headlined "President, you are complicating things", which questioned whether Massoud Barzani should continue to be KRG president.

The other three magazines are being sued over articles suggesting that the KDP or Barzani himself was involved in last May's murder of journalist Sardasht Osman. "Lvin Magazine" is being sued for 500 million dinars for suggesting this in issues 126 and 127 (on 10 and 20 May). "Hawlati" is being sued in connection with articles in issue 611 (pages 1 to 5 and 16). "Rega" is being sued for 1 billion dinars over a story headlined "KDP regarded as Sardasht's murderer" on pages 7-11 of issue 16 (published in May).

"Awene" editor Shwan Muhammad and "Hawlati" editor Kamal Rauf appeared in court in Erbil on 19 September in connection with these lawsuits. The court rejected their request for their cases to be transferred from Erbil, the KRG capital, to Sulaymaniyah. They have decided to appeal against this ruling.

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