Death Threat Attack on “Freedom of Expression”

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Sign the petition for Iraq's three-region solution March 10, 2008 Death Threat Attack on “Freedom of Expression”

Threat against journalist is latest in wave of official intimidation of the Kurdish press.

IWPR - By Mariwan Hama-Saeed 

The brother-in-law of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani has apologised after threatening to kill a journalist who he said insulted his late father in an article.

Halo Ibrahim Ahmed, the son of the late Ibrahim Ahmed, a famous 20th century Kurdish politician, wrote a letter to journalist Nabaz Goran on February 28 saying, “[I will] kill you, [Goran] even if I have one day left of my life.” 

The outburst, which has received substantial coverage in the Kurdish press, was the latest in a wave of recent threats and attacks against journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It was prompted when Goran wrote an article published in the independent Hawlati newspaper criticising the lack of electricity in the north. In the piece, he noted that Ibrahim Ahmed’s grave - which is a shrine on the outskirts of the northern city of Sulaimaniyah - is lit up around the clock. Talabani is married to Ibrahim Ahmed's daughter. 

Ahmed confirmed to IWPR that he wrote the letter, which was sent via email, and said he regretted it.

“It was 11:30 at night when I read his article,” said Ahmed. “I was really upset that he had written about my father in an insulting way. 

“I had a terrible reaction and I wrote those nasty words, which now I regret.” 

In recent years, many Kurdish journalists have been arrested, beaten and harassed by security forces. Media representatives argue that powerful figures in the north do not respect independent media, while Kurdish officials accuse the Kurdish press of adopting poor editorial standards and having little respect for cultural traditions.

In an earlier incident in April last year, Goran was abducted by five men wearing military uniforms in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. He maintained that he was taken to a place outside the city and beaten severely. 

This attack was thought to be retaliation for the journalist breaking news that a Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, media official had allegedly insulted Kurds during a speech. Goran wrote a series of articles about it and demonstrations against the official broke out across the region.

In another incident on January 29, Talabani sued Hawlati for defamation and republishing fabricated information in a translated article by Michael Rubin, an American scholar. The charges were filed under article 433 Iraqi Penal Code, which was written under Saddam Hussein’s regime and criminalises defamation.

The article, which was originally published by the American Enterprise Institute, alleged that Barzani and Talabani had amassed fortunes of two billion and 400 million US dollars, respectively. 

If convicted, Hawlati’s editor-in-chief Abid Aref could face from six months to one year in prison.

"We are not worried about the trial," said Aref. "This is a part of a long fight for freedom of the press and democracy.”

Aref said that Ahmed’s recent comments in response to Goran’s article were “an attack on freedom of expression and democracy in Kurdistan”. 

"If Nabaz Goran thinks that freedom of expression is to talk about my father’s grave and get away with it, then he is dead wrong," Ahmed reportedly wrote in a letter to Hawlati, before publicly apologising. 

Talabani's press office said they knew nothing about the incident.

"We are not aware of this," said spokesman Nizar Barwary. "We don't follow things that are published on those [Kurdish] websites. We have other things to do in Baghdad." 

Goran said he is now planning to sue Ahmed for "terror and intimidation", a charge which carries a sentence of up to 15 years’ imprisonment under the Kurdistan Regional Government’s laws.

"I will file a lawsuit against him, even though I believe that there is no law in this country that can convict people like him," he said. 

Goran said he was disappointed that the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate - which is loyal to the KRG and the region’s parties - had not condemned the threat. 

"I have been contacted from France and the US by journalists’ organisations that want to follow up on this issue," said Goran, who is a member of the syndicate. "Unfortunately, the syndicate has not said anything."

Zirak Kamal, secretary of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, said that while his organisation condemns threats against journalists, it could not investigate this incident because Goran had not filed an official complaint with the syndicate.

Goran said the threats will not discourage him from writing stories.

"I don't pay attention to [officials],” he said. “I'm just worried that this will become a model for other officials to imitate."

Mariwan Hama-Saeed is IWPR Iraq editor.

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