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.”