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Iraqi Kurdistan Closes Two NRT Bureaus Over Protest Coverage

FILE - A security man stands in an empty street in Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, March 14. 2020.
FILE - A security man stands in an empty street in Sulaimaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, March 14. 2020.

Authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan closed two bureaus of the regional television network NRT and arrested three of its journalists over claims that its coverage of protests was inciting violence.

Security camera footage published by NRT appears to show uniformed security putting a lock on the front door of the channel’s Erbil office on Thursday.

Security officials instructed employees to leave the premises, the station reported. It added that its office in the city of Duhok was raided and closed the same day.

The broadcaster’s general manager said he believes the stations were closed because of NRT’s coverage of protests in the autonomous region. “We were the only network to cover the protests that occurred in Zakho yesterday,” Awat Ali told VOA via a messaging app.

“The authorities are afraid that these protests will become bigger, and they don’t want us to cover them. That is why they closed our station’s offices,” Ali said.

The broadcaster was covering protests by local truckers in the town of Zakho, near the Turkish border, on August 19 over a government ruling that reopened the crossing. The border was closed under measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Local drivers said the ruling, which allowed foreign trucks’ drivers back into the region, would take away jobs.

The protest turned into a wider anti-government demonstration, local media reported. Security forces clashed with protesters and detained many of them overnight. The local government called them “looters.”

NRT correspondent Ahmad Zakhoy was arrested on Wednesday while covering the protests and unrest.

Two other NRT journalists, Shkiran Zebari and Nihad Oramari, were arrested in other parts of Duhok province, according to a statement published by the network.

Taef Goran, a senior NRT correspondent in Duhok, told VOA that authorities freed two of the journalists after a few hours but that Zakhoy remained in detention.

“The security forces, which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), gave no substantive legal justification or produced any valid legal orders for why NRT’s offices were being closed or why its employees were being taken into custody,” according to a statement from the network.

NRT is owned by Shaswar Abdulwahid, the leader of an opposition party in the Kurdistan region.

Dindar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told VOA the broadcaster’s offices were suspended “due to [NRT’s] incitement of the people for actions of riots such as damaging public properties, attacking security forces, actions of violence.”

He did not specify how long the suspension would remain in place or address the arrests.

NRT is still able to broadcast from its other bureaus.

Rahman Gharib, the coordinator for Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, a regional press rights group, told VOA he believes authorities blocked NRT to prevent coverage of protests, which are expected to continue over the weekend.

In recent months, government employees have voiced discontent over a lack of pay and other issues caused by budget disputes between the KRG and Iraq’s federal government in Baghdad.

Experts say a decline in oil prices due to the coronavirus have contributed to the inability of Iraq and KRG to resolve the issues.

“I fear the upcoming protests planned for Saturday would turn very violent,” Gharib said, adding that authorities “don’t want an effective media outlet such as NRT to cover the irregularities.”

Authorities have previously detained and obstructed journalists covering protests in the region, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international press freedom group.

“By holding journalists without a warrant, seizing their equipment and attacking news teams in the streets, Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq are clearly signaling their intention to censor coverage of protests and unrest,” Ignacio Miguel Delgado Culebras, a Middle East representative for CPJ, said in a statement last week.