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Ruling party lawsuit could force independent Kurdish news magazine to close

(RSF/IFEX) - The survival of "Lvin Magazine", one of Iraqi Kurdistan's leading independent publications, is threatened by a legal action brought on 17 May 2011 by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two parties in the coalition that governs the autonomous region. The lawsuit demands not only exorbitant damages but also the newspaper's closure.

"Kurdistan's 2007 Journalism Law contains no provisions for such sanctions, which are disproportionate," Reporters Without Borders said. "Legal actions against journalists for press offences should be brought under the 2007 law, not under provisions of the criminal or civil codes. This lawsuit is a serious press freedom violation, especially as it comes at very bad time for journalists in Kurdistan."

The press freedom organisation added: "In the run-up to next autumn's municipal elections, we appeal to all the media and journalists working in Iraqi Kurdistan to be rigorous and professional in the way they work. This is the only way for them to guarantee free speech and media freedom."

The KDP's legal action, filed on 17 May before a court in Erbil, names Ahmed Mira as "Lvin"'s owner and editor-in-chief, and as a person as defined in Iraq's 1954 civil code. It demands "Lvin"'s closure and 1 billion dinars (605,000 euros) in damages for the publication of false information intended to defame the KDP, and asks the court to ban Mira from leaving the country.

The lawsuit was brought in response to an article by reporter Jiyar Muhammad in the 1 May issue headlined "'Lvin' reveals KDP and PUK plan to murder three opposition leaders." It quoted an unnamed senior member of the KDP's coalition partner, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as evoking the possibility of assassinating three opposition leaders as the only way to end a wave of pro-democracy protests was raised at a meeting of the KDP and PUK political bureaux at the end of March.

The article said those attending the meeting included KDP leader Massoud Barzani, who is the Kurdistan Regional Government's president, and PUK leader Jalal Talabani, who is Iraq's president. It identified the three potential assassination targets as Nawsherwan Mustafa of Change, Salahadin Bahaddin of the Islamic Union and Ali Bapir of the Islamic Group.

The article is the subject of a separate suit that President Talabani brought against Mira and Muhammad before a Sulaymaniyah court on 7 May under the 2007 Journalism Law. At an initial hearing held on 13 May, Mira was released on bail of 3 million dinars (1,815 euros) and Muhammad was released on bail of 1 million dinars (605 euros).

President Talabani is also suing Kurdistan News Network, a satellite TV station, for holding him directly responsible for the violent methods that the authorities are using to disperse the streets demonstrations in Kurdistan.

As already reported by Reporters Without Borders, Mira said in an article on 7 May that he received a direct death threat from Pershmergas minister Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa on 24 April. The minister denied threatening Mira, although Mira recorded the conversation., which has become one of Kurdistan's most popular news websites because of its detailed covered of events in the region, meanwhile reported on 17 Mau that it was being harassed by the two ruling parties. It said some of its contributors have been forced to withdraw their articles and others have been told they will be killed if they continue writing for the site.

The website urged the authorities to respect the constitutional right to freedom of expression and to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that this right is respected.

Both the lawsuits against Lvin and the reported attempts to intimidate are part of a campaign by the authorities to harass journalists and media that that have been covering the protests taking place in Kurdistan since mid-February.

According to Reporters Without Borders' tally, since 17 February there have been:

- 40 physical attacks on media personnel
- 23 cases of media personnel being briefly arrested
- 2 kidnap attempts
- 5 cases of journalists being seriously injured
- 3 lawsuits
- 4 physical attacks on news media (Hawlati, NRT, KNN and Payam TV).

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