Journalistic freedoms curtailed

29/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Bryar Namiq holds his thumb out and demonstrates how he can no longer move it properly. He is unassuming in appearance, not unlike anyone you would pass on the street in Kurdistan without a second glance, but the stories he tells as he leans forward in his chair are ones of remarkable courage.

“I’ve been beaten and arrested dozens of times. Of course I’m scared, but when our viewers tell us how happy they are that there’s a TV station that is telling the truth, I know that I have to continue.”

This isn’t Syria or Libya. It is the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq. A region that is often held up as a beacon of democracy in a part of the world mired in authoritarianism. Freedom, we are all told, was won in Kurdistan in 1991, after a long and bitter armed struggle. But the region is riddled with corruption, nepotism and human rights abuses. Recent months have seen a dramatic rise in violent attacks and legal cases against journalists.

“The worst thing isn’t when they threaten or beat me, it is when they bring my family into it,” says Bryar. He holds out a phone with text message in Kurdish. It was sent while he was at work.  “Your wife is leaving the house now. She’s wearing a blue dress. She has your child with her. If you want to see her alive stop covering the protests,” it reads.

Bryar Namiq, who works for KNN, an opposition TV station, is just one of many journalists who have been subject to violence, intimidation and legal abuses as a result of the region’s Arab (or rather, Kurd) spring that engulfed Kurdistan from February through April. The government response was brutal. Leaders were arrested and protesters fired upon by. Ten were killed and hundreds injured.

Most of the media slandered those who took to the streets, describing them as trouble makers or Islamic extremists. There are 850 media outlets, and yet only three national publications and one TV channel can truly claim to be independent of party or government funding. Those who did speak out paid a heavy price.

Sarwad writes for independent paper, Hawlati. “I’ve been attacked four times since February. In one case I got within 20 metres of a protest and the Asayish [security forces] saw me. 15 guys ran over and started raining punches down on me.  All of them.  They hit me so hard they broke my arm.”

He was arrested again the next day after he gave a TV interview about the attack. Since February, there have been more than 200 recorded attacks on journalists in Kurdistan, according to independent media monitoring organisation, Metro.

The most jarring case, says Dana Assad, a journalist at independent paper Awena, is that of Rebin Hardi, a journalist known to everyone in Kurdistan. On 19 April, he was on his way to attend a sit-in in Sulaimaniyah condemning violence against protesters, when he was abducted. He was bundled into the back of a bus and blindfolded, where people set about him, viciously beating his face, hands and legs with looped electrical cables.

“When we saw his face, all swollen and blue, hardly recognisable, that really scared us. We thought, ‘if they will do that to Rebin Hardi what will they be willing to do to us?’” says Assad.

In 2007 the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) passed a landmark law to protect journalist’s rights. It promised Journalists freedom to information and protection from attacks and was widely welcomed. However, it soon became clear that judges and politicians would pick and choose when and how to use the law and when to use old Baathist laws. On 1 May, independent magazine, Livin, published an article claiming the leading lights of the ruling parties conspired to kill the leaders of the opposition.

The KDP filed a lawsuit against the editor in chief, Ahmed Mira, under the civil code of 1954. It demands one billion dinars ($855000) in damages – massively in excess of the 20 million dinar limit in the journalism law – and the closure of the publication – which is expressly forbidden in the 2007 law. The court papers cite not only the defamation of the party leaders, but also the “violation of the dignity and glory and the great achievements of Kurdistan”.

Challenging that dignity can have grave consequences. Sardasht Osman was a 23-year-old freelance journalist and student. His body was found with two bullets to the head in Iraqi city of Mosul on 6 May 2010, two days after he was abducted from the front of Erbil University where he studied. He had recently penned Ah if only I were Massoud Barzani’s son-in-law, for the Kurdistan Post, in which he imagined he was married to the president’s daughter.

After significant pressure from international rights groups the government agree to set up an anonymous committee appointed directly by the president, which produced a report of 430 words, whose conclusions have been roundly dismissed by his friends and family.

However, Jawad Qadir, editor of KDP funded paper, Hawler, denies that the government is complicit in the violence: “Yes the security forces have acted too forcefully at times. They aren’t well trained to deal with demonstrations or journalists. But if the government really wanted to restrict the media it could have shut it down within 48 hours.”

The facts on the ground seem to contradict this account. If the attacks were really just the actions of a few rogue members of the security forces, one would expect reports of violence to be followed up by the government or the judiciary. But human rights organisations have presented the government with comprehensive reports on the abuse of journalists. Journalists have gone to the police and to the courts to petition them to follow up their cases. But not a single person has been held responsible for the violence.

In another implication that responsibility for the actions lies beyond the ranks of the security forces on the streets and with those in the corridors of power, journalists have claimed high-ranking officials have threatened them. When on 7 May Ahmed Mira telephoned the minister for Peshmerga, Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, he was taping the conversation. During the phone call the minister threatened to kill him if he continued to publish critical content.

With the opposition parties still boycotting parliamentary sessions and the political crisis continuing so do the attacks on dissenting journalists. “It will improve,” says Qassim Khidhir, Kurdistan manager for Media Academy Iraq, “but the next crisis that comes along the same will happen again.”

Yacob the bear

05/07/2011 § Leave a comment

Yacob, or The Bear as he is dubbed for his girth and warmth, is a man who can get things done. He has what is known in this region as “wasta”, literally “clout“ in the form of friends in high places. This is a man you want to know if you want to get around the grinding behemoth that is Kurdistan’s lumbering bureaucracy.

Getting a visa extension, friends told me, would be a painful thing. Anyone wishing to stay any longer than a month has to visit the immigration department and be bounced from office to office through heaving corridors for hours. Tales recounted catching the eye of another bedraggled victim of the civil service and the flash of a weary smile in a moment of solidarity. Or in contrast, fighting, elbows out, face in a sweaty armpit, to get to the front of a struggling mass squeezing through a small door to the diminutive man beyond, behind a heavy desk wielding an oversized rubber stamp.

There was also that matter of the mandatory blood test in the less than sanitary conditions.

Understandably the whole experience was not one that I was anticipating with much relish. The Bear was the man who would be helping me along the way. I told him a few days before my visa expired that I would need to get it renewed and he nodded and told me not to worry about getting it done on time, with the hint of a wry smile. A week passed and I hadn’t heard anything from him, and on questioning him again he once more told me not to be concerned.

After another week, he came to me and asked for my passport. “Don’t I have to come with you?” I asked. Apparently not . He lumbered off and a few days later returned with a visa for three months. No problem, his brother is a big man at the immigration office.

I had been alerted to the might of The Bear’s clout a few weeks ago. After a night of drinking in the Christian district my passport slid from my pocket and came to rest on the clammy leather seat of a taxi. Erbil’s streets are clogged with thousands of taxis. Where would I even begin with trying to hunt it down? My passport was lost, I was sure of that. As I was about to call the British Consulate to explain, sheepishly, that I had lost it, The Bear rolled over to my desk. “Don’t worry, I’ll have it within the hour,” he mumbled.

Sure enough, in half that time I was told that the taxi driver was outside with my passport. When I asked around about how he had pulled off such a feat, people just shrugged their shoulders and said, “He just knows everyone, has influence, you know, wasta.”

This is the positive side to the all pervasive nepotism in Kurdistan. Sadly its costs greatly outweigh its benefits. Getting a job anywhere without knowing someone in the ruling political parties is almost impossible. If you want to get a grant to study abroad, god help you if you have to attempt the official route. Even money is trumped by connections. “You can have one guy waving a handful of dollars, but if a distant cousin of the guy behind the desk walks in, the one with the money will still have to wait.”

Because everything is done unofficially, through backroom deals between big men, the door is open for corruption. As one Kurd put it: “Agreements between men with mustaches are worth more than any official contract.”

Empty promise

25/06/2011 § Leave a comment

Lining Erbil’s wide and dusty roads are countless husks of buildings. Grey concrete skeletons waiting expectantly for a workman’s hand. And yet, passing these would-be buildings, day and night, no pneumatic drills puncture the low hum of the traffic, no scaffolding creeps up the monotone walls, the diggers remain still, heads bowed.

Corruption and poor planning, a friend explains, is the reason for the inactivity. Investment is so free flowing in the region that even a poor plan will get funding. The big man running the show will always start construction of the white elephant – you need something to show investors after all. But after a few months, with the money drained off to this pocket of that, one official or another, there’s nothing left to keep the work going, and the project grinds to a halt.

These are a few such buildings all within 15 minutes walk of my house.

“Ishkandaar”

06/06/2011 § 1 Comment

The neon sign at the ‘disco’

“Ishkandaar, Ishkandaar.” The words blaring and distorted, over Kurdish synth music, echo in my head, evoking the particular brand of repressed seediness that I witnessed last night.

Sexuality is pent up in Kurdistan, to the point that it will find any release it can.

In a taxi back to Erbil from the mountains, the driver, taking both hands from the wheel and his eyes from the twisting road, showed me jittery porn videos on his battered old mobile phone.

Rattling out Kurdish – despite my not understanding a word – he seemed to be asking me a question. All I could make out was “sexy” and “Erbil”.

I came to the conclusion that he was asking me whether I thought Erbili girls are attractive. Being eager to please, I nodded vigorously with thumbs up, looking, I imagined, a little too enthusiastic.

So it proved as he thrust one of his hands down his tumescent trousers and, with the other, reached across groping for my groin. Embarrassed, I pushed his hand away and the rest of the journey was run out in red-faced silence.

Was this guy even gay, or was he just taking what he could get in a society where the realisation of sexual liberation is a long way off? Kurdish people don’t date. Speaking to people about how they met their wives and husbands most say that they saw them, and if they were lucky maybe spoke to them a few times, when their families met, and proposals would follow.

It was in this atmosphere that my housemate and colleague Chris and I heard tell of a house of loose morals – with rumours of strippers and even prostitutes. In the name of journalistic enquiry we felt duty bound to investigate.

Stepping in beneath the buzzing neon sign, reading “Disco”, a guard with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder was alarmed that I had my camera with me. “No, no. No photos.” After agreeing we were ushered into a large hall reverberating with ear drum piercingly loud music with the usual manic Kurdish acid house beat.

Around us, immaculate gelled haircuts topped slick shirts open almost to the navel. But not a woman in sight. Who were they dressing up and dousing themselves with cheap cologne for?

Every once in a while, a table of men would spring to their feet and,chests shaking, move closer to each other until almost grinding. If this wasn’t Iraq I would have assumed it was a gay club.

That was, until a heavily made up woman, her stomach bulging in a tight polyester dress, stepped up on stage to whoops and cheers, to screech out a few songs. Soon she was among the tables, trailing the odour of her cheap perfume among the shisha smoke, and repeating those words that would ring throughout the evening, “Ishkandar, Ishkandar”.

She would say this over and over again until the targeted party would quite literally throw money at her. Notes would be dropped on her head, at which a hangdog teenage boy with hair heavily greased over his forehead would scramble on the floor for the money. Big spenders strode up on stage and cascaded 5000 Dinar ($4) notes.

There was no nudity, no hookers; just a bizarre ritual meted out by men who don’t know how to interact with women in anything close to a natural way.

So, this tawdry affair didn’t live up to the imaginings of strippers and loose women dreamed up by the city’s conservative inhabitants. Just the sniff of men having some kind of contact with women in a mildly sexualised, seedy environment was enough to shroud it in some kind of sordid aura.

The first few weeks

30/05/2011 § Leave a comment

Looking out over Erbil

I have been in Erbil for nearly a month.

In this booming city, stretching its wide, taxi infested roads over the surrounding plain, gaudy buildings are popping up everywhere. Western style malls jostle for room with imposing omnipresent government buildings. Skeletal concrete shells of buildings, unfinished due to poor planning or corruption,  are scattered among them.

This all sprouts from the tangled knot of mud brick buildings and bazaars in the centre. Much more rooted to ancient Kurdish and Iraqi culture, this chaotic heart is all men in traditional Kurdish dress, sweet tea and dominoes. Rising from its middle is the citadel, its crumbling streets and heavy buildings now emptied of its residents to be renovated.

Erbil’s more permissive Christian neighbour to the north, Ainkawa, is being swallowed by the ever expanding city. Lining its gridlocked streets are churches, off-licences and verdant green (and heavily watered) beer gardens.

To the east of the city the rolling hills crumple into the rugged peaks and canyons that hide the PKK rebels.

The people are generous and friendly, sometimes overly so when food and tea is being forced down one’s throat. Few people speak any English, so I have to struggle through with a few words of Kurdish (the use of Arabic has dropped dramatically since the fall of Saddam) and gestures. Nepotism is a large part of this tribal society. Looking after your own – often at the expense of others – is not seen as a negative thing here.

I am working on the English desk for AKnews.com in somewhat infuriating circumstances. Not speaking Kurdish means we rely on local journalists to carry out many of the interviews and collect data, which can be patchy at best.

However, with lots of background research, badgering of people in the office and every once in a while getting out of the office to speak to people ourselves we manage to produce some great stuff and I believe were are now the best Iraqi English news service for the breadth and depth of coverage.

It has been a steep learning curve getting to grips with the labyrinthine political system with its many ministries, committees, subcommittees and so on. What an amazing time to be in the region though, there are protests for reform in Sulaimaniya (Kurdistan’s second city), the approach of the withdrawal of US troops, threats from the Sadrists to take up arms once more, a crack-down on journalistic freedom in Kurdistan, asylum seekers flown back by from Britain by the plane load, and much more.

This place is alive with news.

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