Through an unprecedented initiative, the independent media editorial board of the Iraqi Kurdish outlet Peregraf have decided to file a lawsuit against Iraqi Kurdistan’s Regional Government (KRG) using… its own laws against it. Last summer, Editor-in-chief Surkew Mohammed had initially made an official request to the KRG in order to obtain official documents from the Regional Government executive offices. Although the request had a ten day delay to be addressed, the public offices failed to provide any concrete documents to the plaintiffs, which led to the public lawsuit under the Right to Obtain Information Act (No. 11, 2013). The lawsuit calls for the publication of the Kurdistan Region’s public spendings by President Nechirvan Barzani, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, and Kurdistan Parliament Speaker Rewaz Fayaq’s offices. 

“It is the first time a newsroom makes such a step to expose the dysfunctionalities of our regional government”, explained Mr. Surkew Mohammed in his interview to The Red Line. “Our goal is to test the limits of authority and to see whether the rule of law has any room in KRG”, the editor-in-chief added. The Right to Obtain information act allows any citizen to obtain official documents from the KRG granted that they have not related to any security or defense issues. The region’s budget allocation and spendings in the last years should therefore be available to everyone, but the KRG’s administration has not published it in years.

An unprecedented initiative

“It’s been nine years that the KRG did not approve any of its budget in the autonomous region’s parliament”, Mr. Surkew noted. “We want to put an end to this cycle of unaccountability with this lawsuit”, he explained. Still, the challenges are great. And since the lawsuit was passed, little has been achieved. Recently, the KRG judge in charge of the complaint ordered the postponement of its decision, arguing a delay in a legal notice letter to Erbil (where the case is being held) from Sulaymaniyah where the original case was filed. While this decision was made late november, the judge postponed his ruling to mid December. Ultimately, the hearing held on December 15th saw the lawyers of KRG’s Prime minister Masrour Barzain and KRG’s president Nechirvan Barzani ask for a rejection of the lawsuit while the public prosecutor’s office went in the same direction. “Their arguments are weak. […] The lawyer representing the Speaker of Kurdistan Parliament in Sulaimaniyah requested the dismissal of his case, but we explained that the requests are legal and the court rejected the request of the Speaker of Parliament and ruled in favor of Peregraf”, Mr. Surkew detailed. 

“There is not much to expect from judges or any legal institutions in KRG”, argued a local staff of the Iraqi Kurdistan’s branch of the Community Peacemaker Team (CPT) in an off the record interview. An international NGO, CPT has documented Human Rights violations in Iraq for decades. While CPT’s investigations focus on war crimes committed by Turkey in its crackdown on Kurdish militants in KRG’s mountains, the international NGO has given a lot of attention to Human Rights abuses perpetrated by the local Kurdish Regional Government. These include freedom of speech infringements such as targeting of independent journalists, crackdown on opposition activists and the constant impunity of its decision makers.

“Since the Badinan prisoners affair, there is little hope that the judicial system in KRG will bring anything good”, the CPT member added. The Badinan prisoners case refers to the arrest and conviction of no less than 76 journalists, activists and teachers in the Erbil and Duhok provinces (ruled by the Kurdistan’s Democratic Party (KDP), a political and military movement ruled by the Barzani clan, which firmly controls the KRG’s institutions). The political prisoners  were given this notorious title as many of them originated from the Badinan area in the North of KRG. 

Since their arrest, several have been sentenced to severe charges under dubious pretexts such as espionage or endangering security in the region for… holding meetings with foreign delegations in the KRG. “I do not expect anything from the judicial system in the KRG anymore because the judges that gave the harshest sentences to the Badinan prisoners got promoted and were given rewards such as expensive cars and houses. The others were removed from their cases” regretted the CPT member.

Testing the judicial system

In such a light, what is there to be expected from this lawsuit? “We want to know the limits of the sovereignty of Law in KRG”, explained Mr. Surkew. “There is a need for transparency and of independent news sources in our region, he added, noting that Peregraf, which was launched in 2009, is the first-ever online independent outlet to provide news in Kurdish in the Iraqi autonomous region of Iraq. The editor-in-chief noted that his outlet is purely independent and funds its activities through the National Endowment for Democracy and via the Open Society Foundations, both international donors have no grip on the outlet’s editorial orientations granted that they provide non-partisan reporting.

While local initiatives such as Peregraf remain scarce in the KRG, non-partisan reporting remains a challenging activity. Many red lines remain in this field, which reporters have to play with in order to avoid repression. The KRG has the particularity of being split in two parts between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (where the Talabani family holds most power and rules over the Sulaymaniyah province) which gives local journalists a certain flexibility. “Usually, reporters criticizing the KDP live in Sulaymaniyah while those exposing the actions of the PUK end up in Erbil”, explained Asos Hardi. Awarded free press pioneer, Mr. Hardi founded several newspapers in KRG such as Hawlati in 2000 before and Awene in 2006. “But those who extensively criticize both entities generally have to flee the region”, the media director added. Following this guideline, Peregraf has established itself in Sulaymaniyah, where a slightly more tolerant atmosphere for independent media exists. “We have reporters in Erbil and Duhok covering news for us, though”, noted Mr. Surkew. This did not prevent the outlet’s staff to receive threats and to face violence in both subregions of the KRG.

The challenges to free press 

A general consensus between rulers and journalists is that the major red line not to cross is to directly name perpetrators of corruption and abuses. “If the attacks remain vague and point at a whole party or governmental institution, it is generally tolerated. But once an investigator starts delivering facts that point at powerful individuals, things become more tricky”, Mr. Asos added. Several cases of murdered journalists have shaken the KRG, including the execution of Sardasht Othman and Kawa Garmiani. While the former was probably assassinated for having written a satirical poem mocking Masoud Barzani by referring to his daughter, the latter was gunned down in front of his home after consistently exposing the corruption of local leaders in his region of Garmian in Sulaymaniyah province. In the case of Sardasht, recent investigations and analysis of official reports by the KRG by A Safer World for the Truth NGO have shown that local security forces affiliated with the KDP are likely behind the abduction and assassination of the young writer back in 2010.

Most independent reporters in the KRG are accustomed to receiving threats while others have faced direct physical violence in the past. Mr. Surkew was himself beaten up and threatened by KRG forces “I was brutalized during the covering of demonstrations in KRG in 2019”, the editor-in-chief explained. Mr. Asos was also brutally assaulted on various occasions after receiving constant threats for doing his job: reporting about facts in the Iraqi Kurdistan.

In 2020, a defamation lawsuit was filed against Peregraf for exposing the fact that Aram Sheikh Mohammed, the former deputy speaker of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, failed to return a number of official cars to the Iraqi state after leaving office. Hopefully that time, the ruling favored the independent outlet, dismissing the accusations made by the politician. But this defamation case highlights the constant pressure journalists have to go through whenever they attempt to expose the abuses and impunity of the ruling class in the KRG and Iraq in general.

The lack of transparency and constant violence perpetrated against reporters in the KRG is a clear indicator that democratic institutions are dysfunctional in the region. This trend of democracy erosion has been spiraling since 2015, when KDP rulers prevented Yusif Mohammed, the Gorran opposition party member and speaker of parliament, from stepping inside the Erbil province to hold parliamentary sessions. Since then, KDP rulers have extended their mandates over the institutions without any legal bases. Meanwhile, the crackdown on demonstrations has been systematic, always justified by the fact that they are instigated by “foreign agents”.

Recently, the KRG’s parliament unconstitutionally extended its term despite the need for regional elections to reshuffle the house’s seats. The extension will last until the end of 2023. This latest flaw in the KRG’s political system further highlights the lack of transparency and impunity of its ruling class. “The KRG’s institutions are more and more turning into an empty nutshell”, a Iraqi Kurdish lawyer explained under the condition of anonymity. The parliament has a “Human Rights” commission that has little if no purpose at all. Whenever a law is drafted and presented to a judge, the commission is powerless to present any amendments to it. Recently an advisor to one of the political party was objecting to some aspects of a workers’ law. The judge looked at him and said “Are you an elected MP? no, so please sit down and speak only if asked”. This is how the rule of law applies here”, the lawyer mourned. 

While Peregraf’s initiative has little chances of achieving clearance on critical public documents that everyone should be able to examine, it might bring up something different: raise the awareness among Iraq’s kurdish population about the systematic opacity revolving around governmental policies in their region. Hopefully, this will be the first step toward implementing transparency in the country, in the absence of enforcing direct accountability by its rulers.

VIASylvain Mercadier