Judging by Guhdar Zebari’s modest family home in Iraq’s Kurdish mountains, it is hard to imagine the journalist and activist could be a well-paid spy.

But a court in Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, ruled that he and fellow journalist Sherwan Sherwani were, according to a summary by the region’s government, “guilty of gathering classified information and passing it covertly to foreign actors in exchange for substantial sums of money” and possessing “illegal weapons”. The two were among five journalists and activists sentenced to six years in jail last month, after they covered or took part in anti-government protests in the Kurdish city of Duhok.

Amnesty International called the charges “trumped-up”, while Zebari’s father says his son “was writing about corruption [and] they didn’t like his writings”.

Supporters say the Duhok five are casualties in the escalating battle for free speech across Opec’s second-largest producer. In the past 18 months, dozens of Iraqi journalists have been killed, kidnapped, detained, or been taken to court on specious charges. The killings are widely blamed on militias tied to Iraq’s political system and backed by Tehran. But now the Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi state are adding to the pressure.

Last weekend, the supreme judicial council in Baghdad issued arrest warrants for two political writers for defaming public authorities. One, Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, was taken from his home by police. The other lives abroad. The charges were based on a 1969 law written during the rule of the Ba’ath party, which choked dissent and cloaked Iraq in silence until it was overthrown and eradicated in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion.

Since 2003, Iraqis have carved out a “small space” to speak out, says Diyari Salih, a lecturer at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University. But he warns that the judicial council’s use of the 1969 legislation “confirms that Saddam [Hussein’s] mentality is still working in the system”. For Salih, this underscores failure “to reach the goals that we were dreaming about, to have a democratic political system”.

There is media plurality in Iraq, but not much independence: most broadcasters and news outlets are owned by political parties and militias. Reporters and camera operators are regularly targeted by both Kurdish and central government administrations. When hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces and militiamen during mass anti-government protests in 2019, Iraq’s media regulator ordered 12 television and four radio stations to close, allegedly for violating media licensing rules.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has long been a haven for Arab Iraqi writers, according to Baghdad-based Salih. But he says that is changing. Now writers joke they can leave Baghdad for Erbil, but “what would we do in Erbil if we criticise the [ruling] Kurdistan Democratic party? Then no one would receive us.”

Zebari, who was working for the opposition Wllat News in KRI, and Sherwani, a freelancer, were arrested after covering protests in Duhok, the KDP’s stronghold. The demonstrations focused on delayed public-sector salary payments.

Reving Yassen, the journalists’ lawyer, said their trial was unfair. He pointed out that less than a week before their court date, the KDP’s head and regional premier Masrour Barzani told a press conference the defendants were spies: “Those who were detained . . . are neither activists nor journalists. Some of them were spies . . . for other countries . . . Some were saboteurs,” he claimed.

The UN’s human rights office confirmed it observed the trial but has not yet given its verdict, and the regional government maintains that the judiciary is independent. But arresting journalists has become so common in KRI that the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom group, has called on the authorities to “cease harassing the media”.

Back in the mountains, Zebari’s family insists he is innocent. His father says his son was writing as if “he was in a country with freedom of speech”. “For years I’ve been telling him, look, do not write these things, they will disappear you or kill you.” He sighs. “What I was expecting has happened.”