“You don’t have any right to answer,” Ayub Ali Warte recounts the threat from the Asaish officer interrogating him. “If you speak, we will beat you.” From the safety of the CPT office, Ayub recalls his recent memories from deep inside the prison in the Asaish office in Benaslaw. He had seen the innards of this prison and had met its staff before. As a journalist, he is no stranger to threats or Erbil’s prisons.
Ayub Ali Warte is an independent journalist based in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) and the home of the primary ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Since 2010, he has worked with independent media outlets such as Estan and KNN with his stories exploring allegations of government corruption and investigations of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) efforts to target journalists. Unfortunately, his efforts to uncover and document injustices have brought Ayub into the harsh spotlight of the KDP and KRG security apparatuses. For his efforts, he has endured daily harassment, including three arrests, assaults and attempts to be ‘bought off’ with offers to work for politically aligned media agencies. His experiences offer an insight into conditions journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan face if they produce content critical of the local governing bodies.
“Your work should not be honest; you would live freer.”
Ayub arrived home on Saturday 6 August, a tired man. He had spent the morning at the mechanics and running errands and was eager to relax with his wife and three children. The preceding days were busy ones. Across the KRI, protests critical of the government had been announced for that weekend. Ayub was keen to know the public’s opinion of these upcoming demonstrations. He spent days attempting to interview people on Erbil’s streets, but most were afraid to talk.
Suddenly, there was a knock at his front door. He glimpsed some men outside his door. “I thought they were guests,” he recalled while preparing to welcome them into his home. Greeting them, Ayub reached out to shake hands with the new arrivals. Instantly, he was grabbed and dragged away from his home. He remembers hearing his wife screaming as he was bundled into the waiting vehicle.
Ayub stretches out his arms to us, displaying the marks on his wrists from where the knife gouged his skin as interrogators cut off his flex cuffs. “I was in that interrogation room for seven hours,” he explains, “the guard told me, ‘you have to stand while I interrogate you.'” In front of him, the interrogator pours through Ayub’s social media comments and message history. “There are a lot of files against you; we can put you in prison for 20 years.” One of the guards casually exclaimed, “We know you didn’t do anything.” The interrogation ends abruptly with a blindfold over his face, and a black bag pulled over his head.
The next day, the guards ushered Ayub into another interrogation room. This time, however, he was informed of his release on the condition he sign a blank sheet of paper. The implication was that the authorities could fill it in later with a fake confession or non-consensual agreement. Outside the room, a man approached him and asked, “Why don’t you love your country? Why don’t you work for our media?”
“My work is not critical. It is honest.” Ayub replied.
“Sometimes, your work should not be honest; you would live freer. So let it be the last time. We don’t want you to be arrested again,” the man warned.
“Because I felt like it”
Ayub surveils the street when he leaves his home. Constantly under threat of arrest, he assumes he is followed by security forces whenever he is in public now. Recently, while driving from Ranya to the Xoshna Valley, a black BMW pulled alongside his vehicle at high speed. It then attempted to force Ayub’s car off the road but quick thinking saved Ayub from serious harm.
Not long after, Ayub was crossing Eskan Street in Erbil with a friend. A dark car deliberately swerved towards both men with the explicit intention of causing harm. His friend quickly pulled him to safety.
The impunity with which crimes against journalists can occur was flaunted in August as Ayub drove across downtown Erbil. His vehicle was solidly rammed from behind by a darkened car. Shocked, Ayub queried the driver on why he had hit him. The man looked him dead in the eyes and dryly exclaimed, “because I felt like it.”
Defamation as a tool
Out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, Iraq ranks at 172. Journalism is a potentially dangerous and precarious profession in all areas of the country, especially the Kurdish Region of Iraq. In recent decades, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and a host of NGOs, including CPT, have expressed concerns for the welfare of the region’s press. A report published by the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy documented 353 violations committed against 260 journalists and media organizations in KRI by government and political entities in 2021.
The tactics used to harass journalists range from physical harassment, abuse and ‘creative’ threats to arrests based on vaguely defined laws. For example, five Badinan prisoners were questionably convicted for “destabilizing the security and stability of the Kurdistan region” (Article 1, Law 21/2003 KRG) in 2021. Other journalists have been charged with ‘insulting others’ (Article 433, Iraqi Penal Code) and ‘defamation’ (Article 434, Iraqi Penal Code).
Ayub notes that pressure on him rapidly skyrocketed after he filed a report about a politically well-connected doctor in Erbil who allegedly raped two patients who were sisters. In the story, he attempted to raise awareness of sexual and gender-based violence in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, after publishing, the government-funded Syndicate of Journalists announced that a complaint had been filed against him.
“The police summoned me, but I was afraid to go alone. So the next day, I went with my lawyer. They arrested me.” It was July 18, 2022. Ayub was charged with defamation under the 434 Defamation Law (Iraqi Penal Code) for his report on the physician.
Ayub recalls the allegations, still bewildered by them. The primary grievance had been using the doctor’s image in his video report. “For the report, I needed to insert footage, so I checked on Arabic YouTube for generic footage of a doctor, with only his eyes visible,” explains Ayub. Footage of an unknown YouTube doctor’s face was taken and then blurred in editing. Identification would be impossible. Ayub also states that the doctor in this footage clearly shows no resemblance to the physician in his report.
While the evidence should have been clear to the authorities and observers, it highlights the use of defamation laws by authorities in KRI to pursue investigative journalists and activists. Sometimes, members of the major Kurdish political parties also bring civil defamation cases against journalists when there is no evidence for a criminal case.
“What should we do?”
Ayub sees a murky future. No trial dates have yet been established for the cases against him, and the increasing pressure placed on his family has distressed Ayub the most.
In July, an unknown news source on Twitter reported that he had died. As a result, many people contacted his parents, asking them if they knew their son had died and offered their condolences. Ayub said, “For me, it was very painful. All of these actions are being utilized to pressure me.”
His landlords in Erbil began receiving threats from undisclosed authorities, warning that they should evict him. Security forces had also lied to his neighbours, saying his trouble with the police was due to sexual harassment. He decided to move his family, but getting essential services connected proved difficult when they finally found a new home. The government tightly controls all services in Erbil, so it took weeks to get the electricity connected and the water delivery established. “There is a lot of pressure on my family, not just me. My kids’ psychology is being impacted. My daughter yesterday said, ‘What should we do?'”
CPT Iraqi Kurdistan is deeply concerned about the experiences and threats faced by Ayub Warte and those close to him. We call for his and his family’s safety to be guaranteed. We call for KRG authorities to cease threats and investigate incidents of violence against Ayub. We appeal to the Kurdistan Regional Government to adhere to the values of honest and transparent judicial process and promises it has made to protect journalists and freedom of speech.