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Journalists fear for freedoms in Iraq's Kurdish region

Recent protests expose how decades-old political rivalries and traditions of partisan 'mountain journalism' continue to shape media landscape
Protesters opposed to acting KRG president Massoud Barzani shout slogans towards security forces during clashes in Sulaymaniyah on 10 October, 2015 (AFP)

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq – Rahman Gareb is angry. The flinty 49-year-old has fought for freedom of expression in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq for three decades.

It's an uphill battle and progress is slipping. Past beatings he and his colleagues endured at the hands of Kurdish security forces or angry mobs are documented in graphic photographs on the walls of the Metro Center, the journalism advocacy group Gareb heads in Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdish region's second city.

Other colleagues have been assassinated for doing their jobs. Most recently, Kawa Garmiyani, a 32-year-old editor who had received death threats for writing about corruption, was gunned down outside his house in December 2013. At least three more have been killed over their writing in recent years, while others have survived attempts on their lives.

Times are as tough today as they've ever been, Gareb said. Over the past year local journalists have faced danger, death and kidnapping covering the Kurdish forces' war against the Islamic State (IS) group. But on the home front, things are not much better. At issue presently is how to cover ongoing anti-government protests.

Against a backdrop of a wearying war and rising public discontent, journalists are also facing a backlash because of accusations of partisan coverage. The state of media here is illustrative of the deep divisions in Iraqi Kurdish society and reveals the fragility of the region's widely lauded democratic experiment.

'Mountain journalism'

“There is a problem of free speech in Kurdistan,” Asos Hardi, the manager of Awene, one of the few newspapers in Iraqi Kurdistan not aligned with or funded by a political party, told Middle East Eye.

“There is a limited space to speak out but this space is not protected by legislation or institutions. We depend on the will of the political parties to operate.”

To understand why this is the case, independent political analyst Ali Kurdistani offered a brief history lesson. Journalism in Iraqi Kurdistan historically filled an advocacy role, he said.

When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, clandestine Kurdish media broadcast from the mountains to rally Kurds against the regime: “The media represented the agenda of the Kurdish national movement.”

After the Kurds achieved de facto autonomy in 1991, the two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each founded media arms. When the two rivals fought a civil war, “it was the job of media to attack each other,” according to Kurdistani.

After making peace, the parties formed a government but old divisions remained. The KDP maintains a tight grip on Erbil and Dohuk provinces, where the KDP-funded Rudaw channel often plays in government offices, while Sulaymaniyah remained an opposition heartland and the seat of independent media.

Most media still remains under the influence of a political party, polarising party supporters while alienating others. “Loyal members believe whatever comes out from their media and disregard the rest,” said Kurdistani.

Even independent media is affected. “Whenever news is not in their interest, people always ask, 'Who is behind this?'” said Hardi. “They assume you are working for their opposition, or the foreigners.”

Media as party mouthpiece

The result is a society divided into two main factions, where political parties and their supporters won't accept organisations or media from rival parties in their territory.

Media coverage of the recent protests demonstrated that this underlying dynamic remains, even amid calls for unity against the common enemy of IS.

Protests turned violent two weeks ago in opposition regions due to mounting frustration at unpaid government salaries, upon which the majority of the population depend, and the repeated failure of the parties to agree on whether to extend the presidential term of Massoud Barzani, the long-standing leader of the KDP, which expired on 20 August.

On 10 October, demonstrators threw stones at the Sulaymaniyah offices of Rudaw, forcing its evacuation. Fairadun Aziz, a 30-year-old university teacher in the city, told MEE that the demonstrators saw the channel as a KDP mouthpiece.

“It reflects the policy of [Prime Minister] Nechirvan Barzani,” he said. “That's why people in Sulaymaniyah got angry and attacked it.”

Meanwhile on the same day in Erbil and Dohuk, security forces loyal to the KDP closed the offices of NRT and KNN channels and expelled their staff to Sulaymaniyah. NRT is a private channel often critical of the KDP, while KNN is affiliated with the opposition Gorran Movement.

The staff were later allowed to return home but the channels remain closed. The closures aimed to maintain “social peace,” a spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said. “But it's not a permanent decision.”

NRT general manager Awat Ali told MEE the channels' problems were due to their coverage of anti-government protests.

“Live coverage of protests brings crowds,” he says, while the KDP wanted to show calm. Privately, an employee at a KDP-affiliated media outlet acknowledged being instructed by superiors to “bury” protest coverage.

For Ali and his colleagues, the current situation has a worrying precedent. Visitors to his office in Sulaymaniyah pass a display case of charred camera equipment. The objects were retrieved from the ashes after unidentified assailants torched the NRT office following their coverage of protests in 2011.

That year was the worst in decades for media, with Metro Center recording 359 violations against journalists. The tally for this year is incomplete but contains instances of intimidation, destruction and confiscation of equipment, detentions, beatings, home invasions, death threats and kidnappings.

Committed to a free press?

Speaking to MEE, the director of media relations to the KRG prime minister said the government was firmly committed to a free press, despite the political rivalries threatening to divide the region.

Chiman Saleh, a former journalist, attributed some of the blame to a lack of professionalism by journalists and said it was something the KRG was looking to improve.

“Under normal circumstances, it would be a priority for the KRG,” she said, before citing the war, the financial crisis and present political deadlock as obstacles.

Mamand Bize Babakir, a legal advisor to the KRG, also said that legislation to protect journalists showed that media freedom was being taken seriously.

While he acknowledged that the legal system had not been effective, he said the KRG was working to change this.

“We're a relic of authoritarian regimes,” he said “We're still trying to shrug off the remnants of this, but replacing a bad system with a strong one takes time.”

Not everyone believes the KRG is doing enough though. Sources in Iraqi Kurdistan have warned the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists that the KRG is using the outside threat of IS to reduce criticism of its record on press freedom, according to Sherif Mansour, the organisation's Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator.

“It shows how vulnerable the Kurdish experience is in terms of easily returning to an undemocratic past in dealing with the press,” he said.

Yet Mansour acknowledged that the challenges facing the KRG have been dwarfed by what was happening a few dozen kilometres away in territory controlled by IS.

The importance of stability for such a key ally in the fight against IS has perhaps also contributed to a muted international response. According to the US State Department, such matters are purely a domestic issue.

After repeated questioning by an NRT reporter in Washington last week, Mark Toner, the State Department's deputy spokesperson, said: “We condemn any kind of action against a free and independent media. It’s one of the pillars of a strong democracy or even an emerging or growing democracy. You need that diversity of voices in the media space, so any actions to restrict that environment we would see as discouraging.”

But in Sulaymaniyah, such words are unlikely to reassure Gareb. “If this situation continues, I believe this year could be worse for journalists than 2011,” he said. 

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