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Raid prevents Kurdistan's first independent TV station from covering unrest

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the destructive attack that 50 masked gunmen carried out at 2:30 a.m. on 20 February 2011 on the headquarters of Naliya Radio and Television (NRT) in the compound known as "German Village" in Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region. The attack was aimed at preventing the station from continuing to cover unrest in the city.

After opening fire on NRT's guards, wounding one of them, the gunmen smashed all the broadcasting equipment and then set fire to the building. Launched on 17 February by the company Naliya, NRT was Iraqi Kurdistan's first independent satellite TV station. It had existed for 72 hours and had provided a total of just 17 hours of broadcasting when the attack took place.

In this short space of time, it had distinguished itself by its live coverage of the protests against the Kurdistan Regional Government that had erupted on 17 February and it had broadcast footage of police firing on demonstrators and the resulting bloodshed. NRT's executive had been receiving threats since the day it was launched.

"This criminal attack is appalling and unacceptable," Reporters Without Borders said. "It was carried out by the enemies of freedom of expression in a democratic Iraqi Kurdistan. This region needs fully independent media that dare to show the reality that its dominant political forces have been trying to mask for years."

The press freedom organization added: "We call on the competent authorities to investigate this crime in order to identify those who were behind it and bring them to justice. The authorities must also accept that they have a duty to guarantee the safety of journalists."

NRT director-general Twana Osman told Reporters Without Borders: "We had already received threatening messages and phone calls to get us to stop covering the incidents that have been accompanying the protests in Sulaymaniyah. We spoke to Prime Minister Barham Salih and other senior officials, who told us that nothing would happen to us. But everything was destroyed. All the technical equipment was torched and the building cannot be used. The damage is estimated at US$9 million.

"We had broadcast just 17 hours of programming. Our coverage was neutral. Thousands of viewers had watched us, both in Kurdistan and in the diaspora. The parties that control politics in the region could not stand our new way of covering the news."

Osman said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main ruling parties, were clearly to blame.

"The KRG and PUK, as the dominant party in Sulaymaniyah, are responsible for this crime and will continue to be until the instigators are arrested," he said. "Not only NRT but all of Kurdistan's civil society were targeted by this attack, which was an attempt to conceal the truth from the public, to keep the public in ignorance and to gag independent media."

The attack on NRT is far from being isolated. Reporters Without Borders has registered many attacks and threats against journalists since the start of the protests in Iraqi Kurdistan on 17 February.

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    "As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iraq must protect and promote freedom of expression and association, and the right to assemble peacefully," said Human Rights Watch.

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