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Metro Centre to Defend Journalists coordinator Rahman Gharib (centre) leads a demonstration of 60 journalists on April 22 to protest over an upsurge in violence against the press. (Photo: Haidar Omar)
IWPR’s Metro Centre to Defend Journalists has emerged as a leading press freedom watchdog in Iraqi Kurdistan, local politicians and reporters say.
Since it was launched in August 2008, the centre has campaigned on media rights issues; documented scores of attacks on journalists; assisted those who have been detained; and issued dozens of statements that are widely cited in the local press.
While Iraqi Kurdistan has made headway in improving media freedoms in recent years – including approving a press law lauded by officials as one of the most liberal in the region – journalists maintain they are frequently subjected to violence and lawsuits and continue to face restrictions covering events.
Following the kidnapping and murder of journalist Sardasht Osman in early May, Metro Centre helped spearhead a committee of local organisations under the name We Won’t Be Silent. The committee condemned the killing and called on the authorities to investigate the crime.
The committee has organised more than a dozen press freedom demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Metro Centre has worked closely with Osman’s family to call for justice in the case.
Kwestan Mohamed, a legislator on the Goran list, the largest opposition faction in parliament, said she has used Metro Centre’s reports on press freedom violations to push for journalists’ rights.
“After Sardasht Osman’s killing, we sent [a] memo to the parliament speaker about the status of press freedom in the region in which we cited Metro Centre’s reports,” Mohamed said.
“Metro Centre’s reports are very important because they are full of information and facts.”
Metro Centre recently helped organise a memorial for Osman, and has written op-eds and letters to officials calling for a thorough investigation into his death. The centre’s coordinator Rahman Gharib, a veteran local journalist and media rights activist, is serving as an advocate for the family.
Metro Centre has documented at least 70 cases of violations against journalists this year, including physical and verbal assaults, arrests and restrictions on covering events.
The centre’s staff has conducted dozens of media interviews in the Iraqi and international press and written articles in the local media calling for greater press freedoms in the region.
During the election campaign for the Iraqi parliament in March, Metro Centre published a series of special reports that documented and publicised nearly 50 cases of press freedom violations in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Journalists from independent media claimed they were assaulted and detained by security forces while covering election events.
One week after the election, Metro Centre organised a meeting for journalists with Qadir Hama Jan, Sulaimaniyah province’s security chief, to discuss the incidents. Fifty journalists and the Kurdistan journalists’ association attended the meeting, which was widely covered by the local press.
Hama Jan pledged to end the violence by ordering security personnel not to mistreat journalists under any circumstances.
In June, Hama Jan issued a 75-page handbook for security forces, titled No to Violence, No to Violating Journalists’ Rights.
“Our meeting with journalists was important to solidify our relation and solve any problem or shortcoming that might face us,” Hama Jan said.
The handbook includes the Kurdistan Regional Government’s press law and guidelines for members of the security forces to respect media freedoms.
“Security forces must be committed to respecting journalists. They must allow them to cover events and offer assistance within the limits of the law,” he wrote in the book.
Nyan Mohammed, head of correspondents for GK satellite TV, which is backed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, said Metro Centre had “supported several of our reporters who were mistreated and affected by violence during the March 7 election”.
In March, Metro Centre documented cases of members of the opposition allegedly firing above the heads of GK Sat journalists and prevented them reporting from a polling station in Sulaimaniyah province. In Erbil province, a GK Sat journalist’s camera was seized as she was passing through a checkpoint.
In April, Metro Centre organised a march in Sulaimaniyah calling for an end to violence against journalists and the implementation of the region’s press law. The law, which the Kurdistan region’s parliament approved in 2008, mandates that journalists should not be detained but has not been applied.
More than 60 journalists participated in the march from IWPR’s offices to the Kurdistan parliament in Sulaimaniyah.
Six members of parliament from several political factions met the demonstrators there and pledged to push for journalists’ rights in the region. Following the protest, legislators submitted Metro Centre’s reports to parliament’s human rights committee.
Asos Hardi, a prominent Kurdish journalist and winner of the 2009 Gebran Tueni award, the annual prize of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers that honours an editor or publisher from the Arab region, praised Metro Centre for its independence. He said the centre serves as a “vital resource to defend journalists in the Kurdistan region”.
Briar Namiq, a reporter for the Kurdish News Network satellite channel, was attacked and beaten by guards during a rally of veteran Peshmerga, or Kurdish military, in Sulaimaniyah on February 20 during a Peshmerga protest over salaries.
Namiq and his cameraman were briefly detained for “trespassing and assaulting government employees”, charges that the journalists denied and which the authorities later dropped.
Metro Centre representatives visited the two during their few hours in jail and investigated the case. He praised the centre for swiftly providing them with support.
Metro Centre is the only organisation in Iraqi Kurdistan that consistently tracks, documents and issues timely alerts on cases and press freedom concerns.
Namiq said by monitoring, documenting and publicising such issues, Metro Centre influences public opinion and pressures authorities to respect journalists’ rights.
“A vital institution should document all of the cases so that the violations are not forgotten,” he said. “I think Metro Centre is one of these vital institutions.”
Metro Centre director Mariwan Hama-Saeed, who previously served as the Middle East and North Africa researcher for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in addition to tracking cases, the centre is currently following statements by leaders who want to amend the region’s press law.
If amendments are proposed, the centre is planning to mobilise journalists to raise awareness about the changes and lobby members of parliament to ensure that they “are compatible with international standards of press freedom”, he said.
IWPR-trained journalists Frman Abdul-Rahman and Sirwan Gharib reported from Sulaimaniyah. Local editor Hogar Hasan contributed to this report from Erbil.
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