ERBIL, Kurdistan Region--Following increasing pressure on journalists in Baghdad, some local and regional journalists are relocating to the Kurdistan Region. Some of them have permanently shut down their offices in Iraq and have now opened offices in Erbil. Others remaining in Baghdad have moved their offices to hotels protected by security forces.
The latest development in the increasingly risky media sector was the abduction of Iraqi journalist Afrah Shawqi in Baghdad. She was kidnapped by a number of armed men on December 26, accusing her of writing a story for the pan-Arab Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, Shawqi told reporters after her release. She added that they released her only after they were convinced she did not author that story which detailed alleged abuse against women who visited the holy city of Karbala in central Iraq.
Attempts to interfere with media in Iraq, including through threatening journalists, is nothing new. On April 15, 2016, Iraqi authorities put pressure on the Egyptian government to stop the broadcast of Baghdadia TV channel in Cairo. The channel had moved to Egypt after it was expelled from Iraq in 2013.
Around the same time, Reuters’ bureau chief in Baghdad was threatened with death.
Ghad Radio is one media outlet who recently moved its office from Baghdad to Erbil after pressure from Iraqi authorities.
“I know more than 100 journalists who have permanently moved to the Kurdistan Region. They cannot work in Baghdad because they are under threat there,” Fawaz Khatib, manager of Ghad Radio, told Rudaw. “The ruling parties are executing foreign agendas. Their pressure on the media is often due to their lack of belief in freedom of expression.”
He claimed that foreign ministries ask their journalists to choose the Kurdistan Region for their work rather than Iraq.
A number of presenters with Iraqi satellite channels recently quit their jobs, namely Ali Yasin who was the New Day program presenter on Rashid TV. It later became clear that they had left due to threats.
“There are many pressures on journalists. The government should provide more support to the fourth pillar,” Ziad Ajedi, head of Press Freedom Perspective in Iraq, told Rudaw.
The offices of Al Jazeera and Sky News TV were closed last year.
“The Iraqi media had the least number of analytic and investigative inquiries into corruption in Iraq. Some of them have been threatened with death, some have been forced to recant their claims, some of them publish under pseudonyms,” a journalist from Baghdad told Rudaw on condition of anonymity.
The Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate said that 20 journalists were killed and 23 wounded in 2016. There had also been 89 cases where journalists had faced beating, humiliation, and death threats.
These journalists fleeing risk and press restrictions are coming to the Kurdistan Region where press freedom is also under threat, though it “provides a better working environment” for the incoming journalists, Rahman Garib, head of the press advocacy group Metro told Rudaw English on Monday.
Garib said violations in the rest of Iraq are a daily occurrence where they face death, torture, arrests, and threats. In the Kurdistan Region, two Kurdish journalists were killed last year, according to Metro’s figures.
“Until now, violations against journalists are continuing, and these violations are above the law, and no one is held accountable,” Garib said at a press conference last week, noting that there is still “a big threat against the work of journalism and journalists” in Kurdistan.
Garib, whose organization tracks violations against journalists in the Kurdistan Region, said he was unaware of any such violations committed against Iraqi or foreign journalists in the Kurdish region, except for a murder case in Kirkuk, which is outside the Kurdistan Region but under the control of Kurdish authority.
Mohamad Sabt, from the Iraqi Media Network, was gunned down in Kirkuk by unknown armed men last December.
Based on interviews conducted with Sabt’s colleagues, Garib explained, “We understood that he was a very low profile journalist. Therefore we do not think it was politically motivated, but rather a social motivation is suspected,” he added.
The Iraqi parliament passed a bill on protecting the lives of journalists in 2011, which journalists say is mere words with no action.
“Channels which are not affiliated with a party or military group are not allowed to work in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has completely ignored free and courageous journalists,” Dr. Ahmed Rashid, head of the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate in Anbar, told Rudaw.
“Afrah Shawqi, who was recently kidnapped, was released after investigations and pressure. The government had no reaction. It didn’t even issue an explanation,” he added.
“Fallujah and Huna Salahaddin TV channels have resorted to us, seeking permission to broadcast from the Kurdistan Region. Samara and Babylon channels now broadcast from Kurdistan. Eight TV channels have also submitted applications for approval to open offices in Kurdistan, notably, al-Gad, Baghdad, Dijla and al-Sharqia. Two international TV channels, al-Halam and Sahar, have also applied to open offices here,” Mohammed Gardi, media and publications director at the culture ministry of the Kurdish government, told Rudaw.