The journalists in the territories disputed between Baghdad-based federal government and Erbil-based Kurdistan regional government are at loss as the judges resort to Iraqi criminal code in their prosecution as criminals instead of Iraqi or Kurdish press law which gives a large space for freedom of press and expression.
The classic approach of non-disciplined Iraqi security forces ISF makes matters worse for the field reporters since ISF consider them enemies trying to cover everything in the age of media and social media while journalists argue they are trying to inform the public without censorship or "agenda."
The journalists face challenges as they are subject to detention and harassment by the security forces which send them to courts as criminals and view them as enemies, a matter led to retreat in media coverage in the disputed territories.
The syndicate of journalists in Iraq says it can defend only its members while most of the journalists in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk are members of Kurdistan journalists syndicate which has lately shut its doors in Kirkuk and opened office in Erbil "due to marginalization" by the local government.
Hemin Dalo, correspondent of Erbil-based Kurdistan 24 TV close to Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP, is one of tens of reporters suffering from the misconduct of security forces.
In June, he was covering the incident of blaze flames swallowed hectares of crops for Kurdish farmers in a village of Daquq district, 44 km south of Kirkuk.
A patrol of three vehicles for the security forces raided the area and stopped his coverage. He was arrested and driven to the operations' command in Daquq.
They were too aggressive with me and my crew. They told us you are arrested per article four of terror law
"They were too aggressive with me and my crew. They told us you are arrested per article four of terror law for posting Daesh activities," Dalo recalls.
Dalo was detained for two hours without memorandum of arrest. "They humiliated and insulted us, the Peshmerga and Kurdish political leaders. They said Kurds will be back to this area in dream only while our fault was media coverage of burning of crop fields."
Article 10 of Iraqi press law 21 of 2011 says reporters are not held accountable or interrogated for any charges unless otherwise ordered by a judge and the media outlet should be informed. All other texts and laws contradictory are halted when press law is effective.
"They wanted me to go on air and say all what I have said in my coverage was not true and I apologize for the misinformation but my organization and me rejected it," Dalo said.
That act by the ISF is contradictory to Iraqi press law which in item one of article five clearly states "journalists refrain from producing or posting journalistic pieces opposite to their journalistic beliefs and views.
Two hours later, Dalo was freed on the condition to refrain from coverage of such issues in the region with the mediation of Kirkuki members of the parliament MPs, local officials and political figures.
"I will never ever forget such a day as it immediately comes to my mind when I see the ISF whom consider journalists as enemies while we have many times covered victories of the ISF professionally without any prejudice."
Dalo has been arrested five times in the last four years by ISF. "Most of the security personnel forget about law or have no idea about it and they act in a way completely opposite to effective laws."
The Iraqi and Kurdish press law both affirm the right of journalists of freedom in movement and access to information and all available statements, statistics and to circulate it within legal framework.
They are also entitled to attend conferences and public gatherings for journalistic purposes.
Kirkuk, Iraq’s second largest reserves, located 238 kilometers north of Baghdad, is an ethnically mixed province for 1.6 million Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Arabs, and Turkmen. It has long been at the center of disputes between Baghdad and the Erbil.
Currently, Iraqi army, local and federal police, Brigade 61 of Special Forces along with Shiite paramilitary of Popular Mobilization Forces PMF, are under Kirkuk joint operations’ command, an umbrella for the security forces running the security of Kirkuk province.
Chia Nouri, Kirkuk reporter of Payam TV for the Justice Assembly in Kurdistan based in Sulaymaniyah, shares Dalo stories about confrontation with the ISF.
They were even threatening and pushing me to post my stories per their desire
"Every time they were arresting and interrogating me without any arrest warrant and sometimes, they were breaking our equipment. They were even threatening and pushing me to post my stories per their desire."
There are 13 different troops and regiments in Kirkuk, said officials of Kirkuk office for Kurdistan Journalists' syndicate which leads to more violations practiced against the journalists by those troops out of control and command.
Nouri believes there is a big need for the ISF to be educated and trained how to behave toward media and reporters as they should be enlightened about press law and rights of reporters.
Nouri suggested periodical meetings between the ISF and the media outlets in order to share concerns.
The figures by Kurdistan journalists union show that in 2017 up to 2020, 12% of the violations against journalists were practiced in Kirkuk. Last year, 25% of the 138 cases of violence documented by the syndicate were in Kirkuk.
Hemin Hasib, a legal consultant in Kirkuk, confirmed that any lawsuit filed against any journalist should be based on Iraqi (not Kurdish) freedom of press law which is effective all over Iraq including Kirkuk yet "in some cases local officials or rely on Iraqi penal code. In such cases should prove it to the judge they are journalists and ask to be treated as journalists."
In most of the cases filed against journalists in the disputed territories, the plaintiff bases his lawsuit on article 391 of defamation or some other articles irrelevant and contradictory to press law.
Karwan Salihi, correspondent of KirkukNow, and Asso Ahmed, reporter of Nalia Radio and Television NRT with headquarters in Sulaymaniyah, were covering the tension over farms between Kurd and Arab farmers in the village f Palkana of Sargaran district in a day of May 2019.
They were detained by a regiment of Salahaddin operations' command per article 240 of Iraqi penal code which addresses violations against state employees on duty by overlooking their instructions and the penalty is up to six months in prison.
The trial of Salihi and Ahmed was shut after two session because they have proven that they are journalists and member so the syndicate yet they were not compensated for all the violations practiced against them as they were detained, insulted and humiliated, Salihi said.
"The problem in this region is that press law is not recognized here and courts are not sovereign so journalists are afraid of law and courts," Hassib added.
The crackdowns by ISF against the media have pushed the reporters to refrain from bold coverage of daily sensitive issues in a free and professional way, Dalo thinks.
Rizgar Shiwani, head of Kirkuk office for Iraqi syndicate of journalists said they can't defend journalists who are not members of the Syndicate while most of the repoerters in Kirkuk are members of the Kurdish syndicate.
"We have lawyers and Kurdish members in our syndicate and can defend Kurdish members because they were registered by us," Shiwani added.
Shiwani disagrees with Kurdish journalists and believes the ISF show respect for the media except some few cases for which they are in communication and held joint meetings.
"We affirmed that they should not behave badly with journalists whose messages are peace, truth and service for the public."
Dalo called for better understanding of media mission in the disputed territories in order to avoid bitter incidents in the future.