Two reporters killed, one kidnapped in December
Iraq's perilous security situation continues to impact on the safety of the media as two journalists were killed and one more was kidnapped in December. On 1st December Shukri Zaynadin, a cameraman with KNN (a TV news channel affiliated to the Iraqi Kurdish opposition party Goran), was found dead in a deserted village near Amedi, 90 km north of the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Five days later on 6th December Mohammed Thabet Shahaza, a radio journalist also known as Mohamed Al-Obeidi, was gunned down as he was leaving his workplace with a colleague in Kirkuk, 270 km north of Baghdad. He was the manager of Baba Gurgur, a local radio station supported by the state-owned Iraqi Media Network. According to RSF’s sources, he had been investigating the decline in the political and security situation in Kirkuk province.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), these two murders brought the number of reporters killed in Iraq in 2016 to nine. Alexandra El Khazen, head of RSF’s Middle East desk, stated:
“The heavy toll of journalists killed or murdered in Iraq is clearly linked to the prevailing impunity for crimes of violence against media personnel. [...] We deplore the vagueness of local and national authorities about the murders of some journalists and we urge them to carry out impartial investigations with the aim of bringing those responsible for their deaths to justice. The impunity is to blame for the climate of terror and danger for local journalists.”
Media workers also face other kinds of threats to their personal safety. As reported by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), on 26th December independent journalist Afrah Shawki was kidnapped from her home in Baghdad by a group of approximately 15 unidentified people. The kidnappers, who wore masks and military uniforms, stormed her house, separated her from her children and confiscated her jewellery, car and laptop. She was held for more than a week and eventually released on 4th January. According to the GCHR, reports suggest that her kidnapping may have been related to an article she had published calling for the Iraqi State to control illegal armed groups and the unlawful use of weapons.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), on 2nd January police used excessive force to disperse demonstrators demanding progress in the investigation of Afrah Shawqi’s abduction. About 200 protestors had gathered near the main entrance to the governmental Green Zone in Baghdad. According to RSF, police fired shots into the air and beat four demonstrators with the butts of their Kalashnikov rifles. One demonstrator was hospitalised in a critical condition.
RSF's Secretary-General Christophe Deloire condemned the police's action:
"Iraq is already one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, so the police should be protecting journalists instead of posing an additional threat to them"
On 2nd January, Yazda, a prominent non-governmental organisation, was shut down by security officers from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). According to reports, three KRG officers arrived at Yazda’s office in Dohuk in Kurdistan and told staff that the organisation was now closed. Officers provided no reason, paperwork or information regarding why the organisation had been shut down or for how long it would remain closed.
Yazda had been advocating for and providing psychosocial support to the minority Yazidi community in northern Iraq, which has been the target of ISIS atrocities. As stated by Belkis Wille, HRW's Senior Iraq Researcher:
"The desperate situation faced by traumatized communities in Iraq shows we need more organizations like Yazda, supporting populations as they reintegrate and recover from ISIS abuses. The KRG authorities need to think hard about the consequences of Yazda’s closure and reverse its decision in accordance with its international obligations to facilitate, not obstruct, humanitarian assistance"
Later in the month it was announced that Yazda would be allowed to resume its activities after clearing up a "misunderstanding" with the authorities. According to Kurdish officials, the organisation had been closed down for violating its mandate by engaging in political activities rather than limiting itself to providing humanitarian services. Yazda, however, denied having ever been politically active:
“We affirm that Yazda is not a political entity; it is neither linked to any political entities nor supports any side. [...] Yazda is a neutral, moderate and professional organization formed to support the victims of the Yezidi Genocide, through advocating for a future with security, so that the genocide is not repeated.”