Erbil Security Forces Arrest Three Journalists During Protest Coverage

Three journalists were arrested by Erbil Security forces while covering a demonstration near Lebanese Village on Saturday. Sirwan Hussein, a reporter at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)-affiliated Kurdsat News, photographer Farman Abdulkadr, and freelance journalist Kochar Ali were taken into custody around 11:30 AM as security forces surrounded the area, according to witnesses.

The journalists intended to cover statements from politicians and activists, including the hardline Kurdistan Islamic Movement. They had planned to gather near Lebanese Village, a residential complex commonly associated with illegal prostitution, to voice concerns and dissatisfaction over the municipality’s handling of the issue. Shortly after, security forces arrived and arrested the journalists.

A source within Erbil security forces who spoke with NRT English stated that the forces had orders to prevent the demonstration from being broadcasted. They pressed home the point that officers carried out their duties ‘professionally’ without ‘resorting’ to verbal or physical mistreatment.

Following the arrest, the three journalists were taken to Bahraka Police Station and held for approximately two hours before being released with help from the Reporter’s Organization for Rights and Development (RORD). They were released on the condition that they erase any evidence, such as videos or photos, taken at the protest. Sirwan Hussein told NRT English, “Our phones were confiscated, and we were asked to give up our phone passwords.”

NRT English reached out to the spokesperson for Erbil’s Asayish forces, but they declined to comment.

Local media advocacy groups and some PUK officials have condemned the arrests, questioning the motives behind the action. In an interview with a local news outlet, Shanaz Ibrahim, the first lady of Iraq, expressed her disappointment at the arrests, stating that “the security teams should have been investigating the recent attack against Sulaymaniyah International Airport rather than targeting and arresting Kurdsat News journalists.”

This incident adds to the simmering tensions between the PUK and KDP. The latter controls Erbil’s security forces. A drone attack near Sulaymaniyah International Airport on Friday, suspected to be carried out by Turkey, has heightened security concerns in the Kurdistan Region and exacerbated political tensions between the PUK and KDP. The drone strike targeted Mazloum Abdi, the General Commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

According to UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reports, there has been an increasing pattern of journalists being targeted for exercising their legitimate right to report on or criticize the actions of public authorities in recent years.

The 2021 annual report by press freedom advocacy organization Metro Center disclosed 353 violations against 260 journalists and media outlets, including 189 coverage bans, 81 verbal and physical abuse cases, 25 unwarranted arrests and detentions, two outlet closures or attacks, and one journalist shot.

Hozan Qadr, head of RORD, told NRT English that “the arrests of these journalists serve as a reminder of the challenges faced by journalists in the region, particularly in Erbil.”