Freedom of expression under severe threat as journalist and writer killed in Iraq

Freedom of expression is under severe threat in Iraq. Journalists and writers have been killed in recent weeks, others have been arrested and the Iraqi government is seeking to introduce a new law which would seriously undermine the right to freedom of expression and impose severe penalties on Internet activists and bloggers.

On 9th January 2019, Samer Ali Hussain, a photojournalist working for Al Hurra Iraq TV channel, was killed in unknown circumstances, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GC4HR). The Al-Quds police station in Baghdad reported to his family that his body was found with gunshot wounds on Army Canal, east of the capital. Police also reported that his car, personal documents, telephone, and all his belongings had disappeared.

In a separate incident, on 2nd February 2019, gunmen opened fire on the writer and novelist Dr. Alaa Mashthob Abboud and killed him instantly in front of his house in Karbala, located about 100 km southwest of the capital Baghdad. According to reports from the forensic medicine department, to which his body was transferred, 13 bullets penetrated his body at close range. Before his death, he had reportedly met with a group of writers and journalists before returning to his home where he was killed. Dr. Abboud was a member of the Syndicate of Artists, the Journalists’ Syndicate, the General Federation of Writers and Writers, and the Society for Peace and Solidarity in Iraq. He had written for Iraqi newspapers: “Al-Sabah”, “Azzaman”, “Al-Mada” and “Al-Ittihad”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported the arrest of at least four Iraqi journalists in January 2019 in connection with their work in Mosul and Irbil. On 16th January 2019, Kurdish police raided the office of the Iraqi independent broadcaster NRT in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and arrested Rebwar Kakayee, director of that office. Kakayee was released later that day on a bail of 1 billion Iraqi dinars ($836). He has been charged by an Erbil court with violating a statute prohibiting the "illegal use of a communication tool," according to NRT.

In Mosul, authorities began arresting journalists on 19th January 2019, according to CPJ, reportedly as part of a media crackdown led by a local governor. Reporter Ziad Tareq al-Sumaidai, cameraman Ahmad al-Nuaimi, and camera assistant Abdel Rahman Hani Jassim were arrested on 22nd January 2019 while they were reporting in the old city and were taken to the headquarters of the Nineveh Fifth Emergency Police Regiment, according to news reports, the journalists' employer, and the Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq.

On 26th January 2019, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish security forces closed the offices of Iraqi independent broadcaster NRT's office in Dohuk and arrested NRT reporters and staff, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A day before, security forces had arrested an NRT team as they were filming in front of Duhok emergency hospital to highlight the situation of injured protesters who were being transferred to the hospital. The protests were in response to Turkish airstrikes that had killed four people earlier that week, leading protesters to storm a Turkish Military facility in Shildze in Duhok province. 

CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said: 

"Shutting down a broadcaster and detaining TV crews for delivering the news clearly contradicts the authorities' claim that Iraqi Kurdistan is a regional hub for democracy and press freedom.. We call on the Kurdish regional authorities to allow NRT to resume its work in Duhok, return the confiscated equipment, and allow journalists to do their job freely."

In other developments, on 12th January 2019, the Iraqi parliament completed its first reading of the draft Cybercrime Law, which includes provisions for punishment amounting to life imprisonment and high fines for offenders. The draft law seeks to regulate the legitimate use of the computer and internet and punish perpetrators of acts that constitute “an infringement of the natural or moral rights of its users.” Civil society organisations have expressed concern that the loose wording of several articles of the law makes them ambiguous and the severe penalties imposed by the draft Law are not proportionate and will lead to the restriction of public freedoms, especially freedom of expression on the Internet.