On a dreary February afternoon last year, at a courthouse in Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, a three-judge panel sentenced five journalists and activists to six years in prison. It was widely perceived as retaliation against those who had supported and reported on anti-government protests in 2020.
Outside the courthouse, the severity of the sentences sank in. Those gathered to hear the verdict comforted one another. The families of the defendants cried as they spoke to reporters from local outlets, who were processing their own potential jeopardy in a changed landscape.
“We didn’t believe that the court would be so bold as to issue such an unjust and oppressive punishment,” said Niyaz Abdulla, a veteran journalist with a long history of criticizing the Kurdistan Region’s two ruling parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—for corruption, human rights violations, and political and economic mismanagement.
The trial confirmed that the deterioration of press freedoms in the region was accelerating. “Although we expect all kinds of oppression,” Abdulla said, “we still didn’t expect it to that degree.”
As she absorbed the news, Abdulla recalled her own experience a year earlier fighting a lawsuit filed against her by a powerful member of the KDP under a law of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) commonly referred to as Law 6.
The statute was originally passed as a way to combat online harassment. Instead, powerful figures increasingly employ Law 6 as a part of a legal tool kit to silence critics and intimidate journalists into self-censorship. The court ultimately acquitted Abdulla for lack of evidence, but not until she had to endure a time-consuming, costly, and public ordeal that turned her life upside down.
Currently, Abdulla said, “the Kurdistan Region is a kind of hell for journalists.”
In the Kurdistan Region, mass media developed under the tight control of both the former Ba‘athist regime and the Kurdish parties fighting against it. But there was a brief flowering of independent journalism in the 2000s, embodied in publications like Awene and Hawlati. Threatened by this, the KDP and PUK began to establish well-funded TV stations and websites to promote their own narratives; today, most outlets are directly affiliated with political parties or even specific politicians.
Journalists who refused to be coopted have been pressured, arrested, and attacked. Four journalists have been killed in connection with their work in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq since 2008, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Press freedom is in complete retreat,” said Diyaree Mohamed, the executive director of local watchdog the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy. She noted that last year, there were 353 reported violations against 260 journalists in the Region—or nearly one violation every day, which include beatings by the security forces, arbitrary arrests, media outlet closures, equipment seizures, retributive lawsuits, and preventing reporters from covering a story. There were 385 violations in 2020 and 231 in 2019.
“Press freedom in the Kurdistan Region is getting worse and worse,” Sabrina Bennoui, the head of the Middle East desk for Reporters Without Borders, said. At the end of 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists took the extraordinary step of writing to the KRG’s leadership, calling on it to live up to promises to respect press freedom.
Of the three journalists currently imprisoned in Iraq, all are in the Kurdistan Region, and all have been prosecuted under a national security law that allows for twenty-five years in jail. A fourth was released in February, after a year and a half in jail in part due to a conviction under Law 6.
“Democracy is currently in withdrawal, and the state of journalism is also withdrawing to a high degree,” said Speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament Rewaz Fayaq.
Not everyone agreed about the severity of the situation. KDP lawmaker Peshawa Hawrami acknowledged that violations happen, but argued that “compared with Iraq and the Middle East,” in Kurdistan, “press freedom is in a very good state.”
For members of the media, however, the overwhelming feeling is that “there is no rule of law,” said Hemin Mamand, a journalist who has been prosecuted several times under Law 6. “Political parties and tribes make decisions and the rights of journalists are not protected, especially those who are independent.”
Social media and mobile communications came relatively late to the Kurdistan Region, but by the late 2000s many Kurds were avid Facebook users. Lawmakers in the Kurdistan Parliament felt it was important to tackle the growing problem of online harassment. Women’s groups in particular supported passing legislation because women and girls were facing torrents of abuse online, which they argued contributed to gender-based violence in the Region. The result was Law 6 (formally known as the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment in the Kurdistan Region), which passed unanimously in 2008.
Article 2, a section of Law 6, criminalizes the misuse of “a mobile phone, telecommunication or communication devices, internet, or digital post” to threaten or insult another person, spread fabricated news that provokes terror, publish photos without permission, or take any other action that might violate the integrity or honor of another, incite a crime, or disclose personal information even if it’s true.
Those convicted of violating the law can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined between one million and five million Iraqi dinars (between $685 and $3,425). But Speaker Fayaq said that Law 6 “has nothing to do with press work, near or far.” Instead, there is a consensus that, if journalists are going to be charged, it should be under the KRG’s Press Law, which results in a fine, at most, rather than jail time.
Article 2 “leaves open this whole area where you could be prosecuted for political speech,” said Megan Connelly, an attorney and independent researcher. “You would think this would be a concern, but it doesn’t seem to be something that was controversial at the time.”
“The main goal of the law was to protect individuals from harassment, from defamation over social media, online, or on websites,” journalist Asos Hardi said. “At least ideologically, it was not a tool for limiting freedom of expression.”
Even Abdulla, who would later be prosecuted under Law 6, saw it as “a great achievement” when it first passed, because “it was important for there to be a law that can punish people who threaten women for social issues, especially at that time, when smartphones were increasing in Kurdistan.”
No one I spoke with could say for sure when the first journalist was prosecuted under Law 6—there is extremely poor access to legal records about individual cases in the Kurdistan Region—nor are there precise statistics of how many journalists have been prosecuted under the law. But there is general agreement that it has become a problem for members of the press in the past five years.
And the attacks are coming from everywhere. Individuals, lawmakers, party organs, the KRG prime minister’s office, and government ministries and departments have all filed cases against journalists under Law 6.
Judge Abdulkarim Haidar Ali insisted that many members of the judiciary are “good and independent” but had a “wrong understanding” of Law 6. Nevertheless, he conceded that political pressure was exerted on judges who owed their own appointments to political parties.
“Using the law to prosecute journalists itself is illegal,” Hardi said. “It is part of misusing the judiciary system against freedom of speech.”
And while it is clear that Law 6 is being weaponized against journalists in the Kurdistan Region, it is an open question whether the legislation has been effective in its intended purpose of preventing online harassment. All those interviewed agreed that the law had not eliminated the phenomenon by any means and that women and girls in particular continue to be targets for abuse.
Niyaz Abdulla and Hemin Mamand are two of the more high-profile journalists to be prosecuted under Law 6. At the mercy of an arbitrary justice system that is beholden to those in power, their lives and careers were upended, forcing them to flee their homes in Erbil, the region’s capital.
On July 17, 2019, two gunmen shot dead Turkish diplomat Osman Köse as he finished lunch at a bistro in an expensive enclave of Erbil favored by local elites and expats. Two bystanders were also killed. Mateen Barzani, a member of the most powerful family in the KDP and the nephew of the president of the Kurdistan Region, was sitting at a nearby table during the shooting.
The incident dominated local media for days and received international coverage. It was highly embarrassing for the government and shook the carefully constructed image of the Kurdistan Region as the “Other Iraq”—safer and more prosperous than its neighbors, with Erbil aiming to be the next Dubai.
At the time, Abdulla was working at a radio station and serving on an advisory board for a local outlet, Draw Media. In their article published in the immediate aftermath of the killing, reporters for Draw highlighted Barzani’s presence and cited “some senior sources in Erbil” alleging his possible involvement, with the caveat that they could not confirm the sources’ information and a note that an investigation was under way. Hours later, Barzani confirmed in a Facebook post that he was present at the time of the murders but said it was a complete coincidence and vowed to sue anyone who implied anything else. Abdulla herself was not directly involved in reporting out or writing the article.
In October, she found out—from friends, rather than the court—that Barzani had filed a lawsuit against her. After consulting with lawyers, she learned that the charges were filed under Law 6, alleging that she had participated in writing the article and defamed the president.
Subsequently, she appeared in court and was formally arrested. Her lawyers asked the judge to drop the charges, since she had not been involved in the story. “My case should have been closed in that phase, but the investigator told me, ‘Niyaz, I’m sorry, we cannot close it because you know who this person is,’” she said, referring to Barzani. She was released on five million Iraqi dinars’ ($3,450) bail but was told that she could be rearrested at any time the court or the police decided.
Abdulla was acquitted for lack of evidence on March 1, 2020. She has since left Erbil for her own safety after receiving numerous threats that she be killed or sexually assaulted. Even now, she continues to receive threats by phone and over social media. “The danger always continues,” she said. “They never give up.”
Barzani also sued Mamand for a piece the journalist wrote about the Erbil shooting for Mawda Press. He was arrested around the same time as Abdulla, held for a week, and released on eight million Iraqi dinars’ ($5,520) bail.
Before that lawsuit could be resolved, Mamand was rearrested on March 24, 2020, after criticizing the KRG prime minister in a Facebook post for failing to provide aid to low-income residents during the region’s initial covid-19 lockdown. He was held in pretrial detention on Law 6 charges after the prime minister’s office, the KRG Health Ministry, and the office of the general prosecutor each filed lawsuits.
Mamand remained in jail until April 5, when he was released on five million Iraqi dinars’ bail. On Facebook he criticized the police for his treatment while in detention and was arrested in a raid two days later. During his time in detention, he was denied access to his lawyer. Finally released on April 28 on six million Iraqi dinars’ ($4,110) bail, he decided to leave Erbil and moved to Sulaymaniyah for his protection. In November 2021, a court in Erbil sentenced him to two years in prison in absentia in relation to the lawsuit filed by Mateen Barzani in October 2019.
That conviction and the other pending lawsuits against him hang over his life, preventing him from traveling and separating him from his elderly mother, who still lives in Erbil. Nevertheless, he says, he remains determined: “I still continue and will until I die. I will not compromise. I will continue on the path I chose until my last breath.”
Kazhan Mahmood contributed interpretation and translations to this article.
TOP IMAGE: A press conference is held at a protest against the continued imprisonment of the journalists and activists. Hemin Manand is the man in the glasses and black shirt on the right. Photo by Winthrop Rodgers.