The Assyrian Policy Institute is concerned by reports regarding the Kurdistan Regional Government’s indefinite closure of an Assyrian-owned television studio in retaliation for views expressed by the station and its journalists.
Assyrian National Broadcasting (ANB) is a privately-owned television station headquartered in San Jose, California. The station has highlighted over the years the shortcomings of the political system in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), as well as human rights abuses committed by the KRG against Assyrians. In June 2020, ANB formally opened a new studio the Assyrian suburb of Ankawa in Erbil Governorate.
ANB management told the API that the station had received preliminary authorization for its studio in Ankawa from both the KRG Ministry of Media and Ministry of Culture. However, ANB’s Iraq studio has been closed since October 26, 2020, when the office manager was summoned by the KRG Asayish and allegedly ordered to close by Captain Sangar Ahmed. ANB staff complied with the verbal orders due to fear of reprisals, particularly in light of heightened crackdowns on journalists in the KRI, and shut down operations indefinitely.
The API reviewed documentation and official correspondence that appear to support the claims made by ANB that the suspension was arbitrary in nature, and that KRG authorities have ignored inquiries and rejected appeals by ANB to resume operations.
A new account issued by ANB alleges that the station was shut down in reprisal for its criticism of members of the ruling Barzani family, the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum, and for its use of the term “northern Iraq” when referencing the KRI, among other views broadcasted by the station.
Assyrians who speak out publicly against discrimination, injustice, prejudice, political coercion, and annexation, or who are critical of other KRG policies and practices, even on social media, are frequently threatened with violence via phone calls and messages from the Asayish. In November 2019, a journalist for ANB was detained by the Asayish for a period of 13 days, during which he was beaten and questioned about his reporting.
The dangers to journalists in the KRI, regardless of ethnic identity, have been well documented. Kurdish journalists who criticize the KDP have been killed, tortured, or given harsh prison sentences; such cases have occurred as recently as February 2021. Such cases serve as “examples” to others who might express dissent or critique the government and are particularly effective at deterring minoritized groups from exercising free speech, as Assyrians and other minorities already feel more vulnerable and are more susceptible to terrorization and intimidation.
Recent months have seen the KRG's use of media shutdowns, studio raids, the blocking of news sites, arrests, as well as violence, to crack down on independent media in the KRI. The KRG has long sought to undermine and marginalize independent Assyrian media, including through the creation of KDP-affiliated outlets targeting members of the Assyrian community.
In 2005, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) established Ishtar TV with KRG funding. Broadcasting from Ankawa, the station is owned by Assyrian KDP member and former KRG Minister Sarkis Aghajan. Its sole purpose was to compete against, undercut, and challenge independent Assyrian media outlets, while promoting pro-KDP narratives. Through this approach, KRG authorities attempt to marginalize independent Assyrian voices.
In general, Assyrian print and media outlets that are not aligned with the KRG and its policies have been underfunded and face challenges in sustaining their operations. According to locals, ANB is widely considered the most prominent satellite Assyrian news station independent of the KRG. KDP-affiliated media outlets geared towards the Assyrian community such as Ishtar TV continue to operate uninhibited by authorities.
“The arbitrary nature of this closure is an unfortunate symptom of how hostile the KRG is becoming for the media,” said API Executive Director Reine Hanna. “We are concerned that ANB’s suspension is ultimately an attempt to shut down an independent television station. We call on KRG authorities to respect press freedom by allowing journalists from ANB to continue their work without interference."
The API has contacted the KRG Representation to the U.S. to inquire about this matter, raising concerns about the lack of justification given for the shutdown of the ANB studio in Erbil, Iraq.