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WAN-IFRA expresses concern over pattern of media oppression

(WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - In a 30 September 2010 letter, WAN-IFRA called on the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government to end what appears to be a campaign of harassment against the media and to take all necessary steps to protect journalists:

His Excellency Massoud Barzani
President of the Kurdistan Regional Government

30 September 2010

Your Excellency,

We are writing on behalf of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the World Editors Forum, which represent 18,000 publications, 15,000 online sites and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries, to express our serious concern at a pattern of media oppression, which includes the murder of journalists, punitive lawsuits being brought against reporters and the harassment and intimidation of media for critical reporting.

The body of journalist Sardasht Osman, who wrote under the pseudonym Dashti Othman for the newspaper Ashtiname and for several websites, was found in Mosul on the morning of 6 May. He had been kidnapped two days earlier by armed men outside Salahadin University, where he studied English, in the nearby city of Erbil. Shortly before his murder, Mr Osman had written an article for Ashtiname that was critical of a senior member of the Kurdistan regional government and had reported receiving threatening phone calls. Mr Osman was the second journalist in two years to be murdered in Iraqi Kurdistan, following the July 2008 killing of Soran Mama Hama, a reporter with the Sulaymaniyah-based Livin magazine.

Since Mr Osman's murder, tensions between the government and news media have further deteriorated. On 18 September Hemn Karim, editor of Fshar magazine, was detained for more than 24 hours after attending a press conference held to condemn the harassment of journalists. This followed a decision on 22 August by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two ruling parties, to sue five publications, including Fshar, for alleging electoral fraud and criticising you and your government.

There have been a significant number of cases where the KDP has brought defamation complaints against newspapers, including Rozhnama, Awene, Hawlati and Livin. In the case of the opposition Rozhnama weekly, the KDP is seeking US$1 billion in damages and the closure of the paper after publishing an article accusing the two ruling parties of profiting from smuggling oil into Iran. The complaint was filed under the Saddam Hussein-era penal code rather than the more liberal 2007 Iraqi Kurdistan press law.

In June, a colonel in the security services threatened to shoot journalist Shwan Ahmed for writing two articles in the Kurdish independent weekly Awene about alleged corruption within Serdam, a publishing house founded in 1998 by supporters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), President Jalal Talabani's party.

While accepting that Kurdistan's journalists may sometimes fall short of respecting the highest professional standards and of failing to adequately distinguish between facts and allegations, we respectfully remind you that a civil award of reasonable damages is adequate and appropriate relief in all proven cases of defamation, and that excessive awards have a chilling effect on investigative journalism and freedom of the press. Furthermore, senior public officials should expect to be subjected to a greater degree of media scrutiny than private individuals. We believe that encouraging programmes to enhance the professional standards of journalists would be more productive than bringing intimidatory libel suits and threatening criminal prosecution.

Furthermore, we remind you that it is the duty of the state to provide an environment in which journalists are able to carry out their professional duties without fear of violence. We are concerned that physical and legal attacks on journalists intimidate and silence the press. They stifle criticism and can lead to self-censorship.

We respectfully call on you to end what appears to be a campaign of harassment against the media and to take all necessary steps to protect journalists. We also respectfully ask you to ensure the murders of journalists are fully investigated and the murderers brought to justice. We ask you to ensure that in future your country fully respects international standards of press freedom.

We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Yours sincerely,

Gavin O'Reilly
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

Xavier Vidal-Folch
World Editors Forum

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