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Kurdish Press Law Draws Mixed Response

While journalists welcome parts of legislation, they still express concerns about press freedom in region.
By Wrya Hama-Tahir
Although Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders have approved a new press law that affords journalists in the north more rights, some observers argue that the battle for freedom of expression in the region is far from over.

The press law prohibits the imprisonment of journalists as well as the closure or suspension of newspapers – key demands of press rights advocates and local journalists who fought against prior drafts of the legislation that they claimed were too restrictive.

However, the law also places some restrictions on publishing, including prohibiting articles that “create instability, spread fear and intimidation and cause harm to people” or “violate religious beliefs”. Reporters, editors and publications will face heavy fines for violating the legislation, which stipulates that journalists must follow the International Federation of Journalists' ethics codes and also imposes strict guidelines for publications to run corrections.

As independent media has grown in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past five years, editors and reporters have clashed with officials – several of whom accuse media workers of biased and careless reporting. Some journalists, meanwhile, have argued that politicians and party leaders do not respect independent media.

Many consider journalism in Iraq's Kurdish region to be in its embryonic stage, particularly because the two parties which govern the region – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP – dominate its media.

Journalists and politicians have haggled over press legislation since 2006.

Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, president Massoud Barzani refused to sign a press law passed by the Kurdistan National Assembly in November 2007 following an outcry by journalists, intellectuals and civil society leaders who said it was too restrictive.

The final law, which was approved by the Kurdish parliament in late September and signed by Barzani on October 11, is the first of its kind in post-war Iraq and replaces Ba’ath-era codes which allowed journalists to be given jail terms.

It eliminates some of the more controversial provisions of earlier versions of the law, such as punishing journalists and publications for vague violations, including producing articles deemed to jeopardise “national security” or oppose “common values”. Past versions also allowed for reporters and editors to be imprisoned and prohibited journalists from covering a slew of subjects.

Karim Bahri, a member of the parliament’s legal committee, called the new law a “rare and sophisticated” piece of legislation in the Middle East. He said it would contribute to building democracy in the north and would also help promote transparency.

Meanwhile, Arez Abdullah, who chairs the Kurdish parliament’s cultural committee, said that the authorities had heeded the concerns of journalists, writers and organisations when drafting the final version of the law.

“All of the viewpoints, including proposals by international organisations, were taken into consideration,” he said, adding that the PUK and the KDP had backed the legislation.

Although journalists support aspects of the law, many expressed reservations about the impact it could have on the future of Kurdish journalism.

Zirak Kamal, secretary of the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate, said that although he was glad to see some of the more controversial provisions removed in the final version, he remained concerned about the “heavy fines” that can be imposed on journalists.

The minimum penalties were lowered from three million dinars (2,750 US dollars) for journalists and ten million dinars for newspapers. Reporters and editors-in-chief can now be fined between one million and five million dinars and a newspaper will face a penalty of five million to 20 million dinars for publishing articles that breach the law.

Lawmakers, however, argue that these fines are necessary to deter inaccurate reporting.

Bahri said they were included “so that journalists would steer clear of defamation”.

Others were concerned that the new law contains no provisions to promote freedom of information.

“This law is the fruit of efforts by newspapers, particularly the private ones,” the new editor-in-chief of privately funded Hawlati newspaper, Kamal Rauf, told IWPR. However, he added that the parliament should have supported a clause that guarantees journalists some access to information.

The law is “imperfect” and freedom of expression could be undermined because it does not include a right- of-access-to-information provision, argued Falah Muradkhan, coordinator of the Civil Society Organizations' Federation.

Although Muradkhan acknowledged the law would put an end to the intimidation and humiliation of journalists and protect publications against being shut down, he added that he did not think it would ultimately increase freedom of expression or strengthen journalism in the north.

Muradkhan said the struggle for freedom of expression in Kurdistan was far from over.

“This is the first step,” he said. “We have a long way ahead of us.”

Meanwhile, IWPR is soon to launch a training programme aimed at providing legal protection for journalists. The project will teach eight Iraqi lawyers to become media experts, and the lawyers will then train editors and journalists on legislation relating to media.

Wrya Hama-Tahir is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

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