Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq are cracking down on media outlets covering anti-government protests, journalists and rights defenders told AFP, shattering the region's reputation as a liberal refuge.
For decades, Iraqis fleeing pressure by paramilitary groups, tribes and powerful politicians in the more conservative south sought safe haven in the Kurdish region.
But public anger at the Kurdish regional government (KRG) has grown in recent months, prompting protests over unpaid state salaries and Turkish incursions into border areas.
Demonstrators and rights defenders say the rallies have been met with a heavy-handed response from security forces -- with reporters increasingly targeted.
"Despite laws guaranteeing press freedom in the region, when political and economic crises intensify, the limits on press reach a point of strangulation," warned the region's Metro Center for Journalist Rights and Advocacy.
In the first half of 2020, Metro recorded 88 violations against 62 journalists and media outlets, and says the pressure has intensified since mid-June.
This week, the Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, forcibly shut down the Dohuk city offices of local television broadcaster NRT, which had been covering protests in nearby Zakho.
"After midnight, security forces stormed our Dohuk bureau and confiscated all coverage equipment," NRT's deputy chief Hawnar Ihsan told AFP. "Our Zakho correspondent Ahmad Zakhawi was arrested and has yet to be released."
Hours later, police shut down NRT's bureau in the regional Kurdish capital of Arbil, prompting condemnations from local and international rights groups.
"This escalating harassment of NRT is unfair and undemocratic, and begs the question why authorities are so scared of the broadcaster that they have to shutter its offices," wrote the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
- 'From bad to worse' -
Like the rest of Iraq, media outlets in the Kurdish region are nearly all linked to political figures or parties. NRT is owned by a dissident from the New Generation Movement, a Kurdish opposition party.
Press freedoms in Kurdish Iraq are guaranteed by a regional law from 2009, which was commended by the US-based Freedom House rights group at the time for giving reporters "unprecedented freedoms".
"Theoretically, the KRG has a margin of freedom because it has a law that is acceptable to a certain degree," said Yassin Taha, an independent journalist in the region.
In reality, few criticised the ruling elite -- until the economic and public health situation became unbearable.
Salaries for state workers have not been paid in months, further straining a consumer economy hit hard by lockdowns imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Protests erupted against government graft and waste, and discontent grew further when Turkey launched a rare ground and air assault against Kurdish militants in the region in June.
The Kurdish government kept silent on the operation, prompting criticism and accusations it was turning a blind eye to the deadly raids.
"The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is going from bad to worse, with the failures accumulating and the protests boiling," said Taha.
"Silencing outlets and shutting down (TV) channels cannot be the solution to successive setbacks during all these long years," he said.
- Citizen journalism -
In June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the KRG was using clauses on defamation and insults in the penal code and other laws to target protesters and journalists.
It said that an Iraqi Kurdish man was held in custody for 29 days for live-streaming a protest in January. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
HRW quoted another Iraqi Kurd who had faced criminal charges saying he paid money to the Asayish to be released. Afterwards "they told me, 'we might call you in at any time,'" he said.
The New York-based HRW watchdog urged the KRG to amend its laws to remove "vague provisions" allowing for pressure on media and activists.
Others have appealed to the United Nations.
Six Kurdish members of parliament in Baghdad wrote to the UN's top official in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert on Friday, urging her to "pressure KRG officials to respect the civil and political rights of citizens".
For Rahman Gharib from Metro, the crackdown could backfire.
"This will create thousands of NRTs -- people will become their own correspondents everywhere," he said.
"The era of one television station, one radio station, or one newspaper is gone and will not return. Every citizen now has a television, radio station or newspaper of his own -- they can have their voices and demands and opinions heard, just like NRT used to do."