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KRG Press Law Proposals Cause Concern

Legislative changes ensure journalists won’t be jailed, but restrict reporting on sensitive issues.
By Wrya Hama-Tahir
Journalists in Kurdistan fear that proposed changes to legislation currently being drafted in parliament will prevent them from reporting on a slew of important subjects.



A Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, parliamentary committee is drafting amendments to a controversial press law approved by KRG lawmakers last year.



Chairman of the KRG parliament’s legal committee Kareem Bahri told IWPR that while the committee has proposed changes protecting journalists from imprisonment, it is also trying to make it illegal for them to write articles that insult religious beliefs and public customs or threaten national security.



Other changes being considered by the committee include prohibiting newspapers from publishing articles on prominent figures “unless the article is in the public interest”, said Bahri, adding that the legislation was still being drafted and could yet be changed.



While media rights activists welcome reforms that protect reporters and editors from prison, they remain concerned about the proposed restrictions on reporting.



"Removing the clause [from the original law] that puts journalists in prison and reducing the fines [levied on them] are really important for us,” said Aland Mahwi, a reporter with Rozhnama newspaper in Sulaimaniyah.



“Those changes will enable journalists to be more courageous in criticising [the authorities]. But [prohibitions] like damaging public customs and national security might be used by the authorities to silence journalists."



The original law passed by parliament in 2007 – replacing Ba’athist-era legislation that criminalise libel and defamation – left the door open for journalists to be imprisoned for publishing articles that violated the region’s anti-terrorism law, drawing censure from journalists and press freedom advocates.



Under the law, journalists could also be fined up to ten million Iraqi dinars (8,300 US dollars) and newspapers up to 20 million dinars for publishing articles that create instability, spread fear, provoke sectarianism, encourage terror, damage public customs and national security or insult individuals.



Newspapers could be shut down and copies already in circulation seized if the law was broken.



Following an outcry from both the independent and pro-government press, KRG president Massood Barzani in December refused to sign off on the law, a process necessary for it to come into force.



The controversies over Kurdistan’s press law has heightened long-standing tensions between the region’s independent press, which is highly critical of lawmakers, and Kurdish leaders who frequently accuse local journalists of reporting irresponsibly.



Independent journalists have maintained that Kurdish leaders want to create a press law that would muzzle the burgeoning press in the north. The latter has clashed with the two dominant Kurdish parties over the past several years and journalists have been harassed and jailed.



The KRG has also come under international pressure to protect press freedom.



In a report issued earlier this month on the press in Kurdistan, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, CPG, said, “The increasing assertiveness of the independent press has triggered a spike in repression over the last three years, with the most forceful attacks targeting those who have reported critically on Barzani, [Iraqi president Jalal] Talabani, and other high-level officials.”



CPJ called on the KRG to reject laws that “stipulate prison penalties, ban news outlets, set excessive fines, prescribe vague prohibitions and impose professional requirements”.



According to a CPJ statement, Barzani told the CPJ delegation that “it would be intolerable to have someone arrested in freedom of expression cases”.



KRG spokesman Jamal Abdullah told IWPR that the authorities “will take the report seriously”.



“We will organise awareness courses for security and police forces to teach them to behave in a civilised way with journalists and people,” he said.



Abid Aref, editor-in-chief of the leading Kurdish independent newspaper Hawlati, which has been sued at least 50 times according to CPJ, said the Kurdish leadership “is really afraid of such reports”.



But Bahri said that Kurdish lawmakers were changing the press law based on the concerns of Kurdish journalists, not because of international pressure.



“After the president of Kurdistan sent the legislation back to parliament and journalists criticised [it], we decided that we have to change some of the provisions,” said Bahri, adding that the parliamentary committee has received legal advice from the US consulate in Kirkuk.



While the version currently being drafted maintains many of the prohibitions that were included in the original draft, it reduces punishments to fines of between 500,000 and five million dinars (415 to 4,150 dollars).



Under the new legislation, said Bahri, newspapers will not be shut down. "I'm optimistic that we will pass a law that is compatible with international standards," he said.



Journalists, meanwhile, remain concerned that the proposed changes are simply another means of stifling press freedom.



Ali Hama-Salih, head of the news department at Rozhnama, said that the clauses prohibiting certain subject matter “were a deliberate act by the authorities to handcuff journalists".



Journalist with the Kurdistan Report newspaper Hilal Ibrahim said if the authorities believe in a free press, they should simply abolish the Ba’athist-era laws and not have any media regulations.



“The idea behind making the law is to impose restrictions,” he said. “The parliament might make some amendments, but they will be small changes rather than radical ones.”



Wrya Hama-Tahir is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah. Iraq editor Mariwan Hama-Saeed contributed to this report.