On September 22, Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional parliament passed a regional media law sparking an outpouring of support from Kurdish journalists and media outlets. The law, they say, gives them unprecedented freedoms.
An earlier version of the law, passed by parliament in December 2007, was met with widespread opposition from Kurdish journalists who pressured Massoud Barzani, president of Kurdistan’s regional government, to reject the law and send it back to parliament. Critics said the draft restricted journalistic freedom. The law remained pending until amendments were passed by parliament on September 22.
Firhad Awni, head of Kurdistan’s Journalists’ Union, told Niqash that “it is a historic day for all Kurdistani journalists who have managed to achieve a great accomplishment for us and for future generations.” He called for September 22 to be marked as “Kurdistan Journalists Day.” According to Awni the passage of the law has made Kurdistan “the only region in the Middle East to guarantee complete freedom for its journalists.”
In the original bill, journalists opposed an article which allowed for the imprisonment of journalists upon a court order. The article stipulated that “in case a journalist violates the laws in force in the region, the judge may issue an arrest warrant for the journalist after informing the union.” This text has now been replaced by a new article stipulating that “in case of violation of laws in force, the journalist shall only be subject to a financial fine and shall not be imprisoned.”
Shawan Muhammad, editor of Awina weekly newspaper, called the amendment “a great achievement,” commenting that it is “in line with the progress achieved by the region.” Muhammad recalled several incidents in recent years where journalists have been arrested and imprisoned. “Today, there is no chance that such incidents will happen again and no chance that any journalists in the region will be imprisoned,” he said.
Before the ratification of the media law, a number of Kurdish newspapers were closed for publishing articles critical of Kurdish authorities because judges were entitled to issue closed verdicts. Journalists and those responsible for newspapers were subject to trials as well as financial penalties. Paragraph five of article two of the old bill banned “the suspension, closure or confiscation of newspapers except upon a court verdict.” Paragraph one of article 10 stipulated that “no newspaper shall be banned for more than six months.” This implied, however, that a judge could suspend a newspaper for a period of up to six months. But with the amendments, these restrictions have been lifted and the new law stipulates that “newspapers shall not be suspended or confiscated.”
The old version also contained a number of terms carrying various potential interpretations prompting journalists to ask for greater clarity. As an example, paragraph one of the draft law stipulated that press freedoms shall not violate “public order and morality,” or endanger the “security of the region.” Following the amendment “public order and morality” were deleted and “the security of the region” was replaced by “the security of the nation.” Article four of the old law also stipulated that the editor of any newspaper had to be a member of Kurdistan’s Journalists’ Union. This condition was opposed by many journalists, especially those working for independent media institutions. This article was also amended and the condition regarding editors deleted.
“Union membership should be voluntary. Any other stipulations represent a violation of personal freedoms and this is why we demanded the amendment of this article,” commented Awni.
Even so, journalists in the region say the new law still contains some troubling articles. According to Muhammad, “fines that can be imposed on newspapers [are] one of the most negative aspects of the law.” The law imposes fines ranging from one to five million Iraqi dinars (US $820 to $4,200) on any journalist who violates the law, as well as fines of five to 10 million Iraqi dinars (US $4,200 to $21,000) on newspapers that publish news that disturbs security, spreads fear, hatred, animosity, undermines religious beliefs, interferes with individual privacy and/or contains libel and slander.
“Independent journalists who work with private institutions cannot pay such amounts. Additionally, the fine imposed on newspapers is very high for independent newspaper relying on self-financing,” said Muhammad.
Areez Abdallah, a member of the cultural committee of Kurdistan’s regional parliament described the new law as “modern and well-developed”, saying it “guarantees freedoms.” In his view, “the fine amounts are not high, especially considering that there are no other penalties; journalists shall not be imprisoned and newspapers shall not be closed.”
According to Abdallah “the law cannot be void of any penalties. These penalties create a balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and individual freedom and public freedom on the other. The door of parliament is open for everybody. Journalists can again demand amendments to the law whenever they see a need for such amendments,” he told Niqash.
To read the full text of the Law (Arabic only), click here.