Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kurdish Press Law A Threat to Freedom of Expression and Democracy - By Ardalan Hardi

The Kurdistan National Assembly, led by President Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), on Dec. 10 passed a Press Law that mandates fines for journalists and news organizations for “insulting officials.” Journalists could face jail time and or fines of up to 10 million Iraqi Dinars. Newspapers would be forced to pay as much as 20 million Iraqi Dinars.

This law is a clear violation of international media standards that jeopardizes freedom of expression and threatens Kurdistan 's democracy. Criticizing public officials should not be a criminal offense.

Hundreds of journalists and intellectuals have scheduled a demonstration against the Press Law to be simultaneously held Friday in Azadi Park in Sulaimaniyah and Mnara Park in Irbil .
In a recent interview, journalist Mem Burhan Qani’ told Kurdish Voice of America: “So far this is the worst law that has been passed by the Kurdistan National Assembly since its establishment.”

Asos Hardi, the editor-in-chief of Awene independent news paper in Sulaimaniyah, told Kurdish Aspect: “The bill was initially drafted by the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate (KJS) and was modified by some members of the Parliament who took it upon themselves to change some of the paragraphs and articles in the bill.”

Mr. Hardi said, “For the law to take effect, President Barzani has to sign it. If he does, this will follow in the footsteps of dictators and totalitarian governments like the former Baath’s regime, rather than following principles of freedom and democracy that we seek as a nation.”
Mr. Hardi argued, “The previous press law set by the Baath government was better than the one the Kurdish parliament just passed”.

Under the Baath regime’s laws, a reporter who broke laws was solely held responsible for the crime and faced imprisonment. The law passed by the KNA not only holds journalists responsible, but also punishes newspapers. If convicted of vague crimes such as “insulting officials,” newspapers can be closed for up to six months and gives the government the power to seize all of the copies already in circulation.

On behalf of the staff of Kurdish Aspect and all of our contributors, we call on President Barzani to reject the proposed Kurdistan Press Law and send it back to parliament for further discussion.

One of the essential pillars of democratic societies is the freedom of expression. Defending a free press should be a core value of all governments that consider themselves democratic. The role of the media is a primary factor in holding our elected officials accountable and maintaining transparency.

Thomas Jefferson summed it up when he wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."