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Iraqi Kurdistan newspapers hit by lawsuit barrage

Filed by regional political parties

Newspapers and journalists in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region have been bombarded by a barrage of lawsuits from regional political parties, media rights groups and editors say.

"In recent months more and more lawsuits have been brought against the Kurdish media," rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a report on its website titled "Iraqi Kurdistan: Lawsuits raining down on news media."

"Newspaper editors nowadays seem to be spending their time in the corridors outside courtrooms," RSF said.

Press freedom

The slew of lawsuits are "an attempt to crack down on press freedom and intimidate journalists and confuse their daily work," said Rahman Ghareeb, director of the Metro Center to Defend Journalists.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed by various political parties this year over articles published in independent Kurdistan periodicals, editors said.

"There are nine lawsuits against our newspaper," said Kamal Rauf, editor in chief of Hawlati newspaper.

"The aim of the lawsuits is to intimidate and force the press to keep from engaging in the work of the independent media," he said.

"There are more than 27 lawsuits against our magazine," said Ahmed Mera, the editor in chief of Lvin magazine.

He said these include "six political lawsuits" filed by Kurdistan President Massud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a complaint from the public prosecutor over an article about Barzani's salary and other "lawsuits by political officials, security agencies and companies."

Mera speculated that one intention of the lawsuits is to take up journalists' time with court appearances, thus preventing them from working.

"Our presence in the courts leads to a waste of time. This is the goal of the parties -- to prevent us from practicing our work," he said.

In another report on its website, RSF said that one lawsuit filed by the KDP, one of the two main parties in Kurdistan, sought "$1 dollars in damages" from magazine Rojname.

The aim of the lawsuits is to intimidate and force the press to keep from engaging in the work of the independent media

Kamal Rauf, editor in chief of Hawlati newspaper

Defense through lawsuits

The lawsuit was over an article that "accused the KDP and its ruling coalition partner, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), of helping to smuggle refined petroleum products into Iran in violation of the international sanctions," RSF said.

The KDP has said it is merely defending itself with the lawsuits.

"The reason for the KDP resorting to filing a large number of lawsuits against journalists is... self-defense," said Ari Harseen of the party's media office.

Harseen also denied that criticism of Barzani and his family were red lines, and said that the party "stresses the coexistence with others, including free media."

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's PUK, the other main party in the region, said it preferred not to resort to litigation.

"We are trying to clarify and refute and respond to the materials that are offensive to the PUK through the media" and prefer not to go to court, party spokesman Azad Jandiani said.

"We believe in resolving the existing tense relationship (between political parties and the media) through dialogue to reach a common formula and to get out of the crisis between us," Jandiani said.

Besides lawsuits, journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan have also faced other hazards.

Last May, 22-year-old journalist Sardasht Osman was found dead with a single bullet to the head a day after he was kidnapped. He had been writing scathing articles about the alleged corruption of Kurdish leaders, especially Barzani.

An official probe that claimed Osman was in fact a member of a militant group was slammed by press groups and his family, who said they were convinced the reporter was killed because of his work.

In recent months more and more lawsuits have been brought against the Kurdish media

Reporters Without Borders