Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Failings of Kurdish Media Exposed

Press reaction to shocking killing of young journalist underlines the need for substantive reforms.
By Hiwa Osman

Hiwa Osman

Hiwa Osman
IWPR’s senior media adviser in Iraq

The reaction to his shocking death in both pro-government and opposition media has been depressing and sadly predictable.

Osman, a student journalist who had criticised the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, was abducted in the regional capital, Erbil, on May 4. His body was found a day later in the nearby city of Mosul.

Politicising this killing, and trying to put the blame before the real facts are known will not serve anyone.

It complicates things more, because in a sense, the government, the opposition and the media must all share some responsibility for the unhealthy environment for public discourse in which a murder such as this could take place.

If no real and practical steps are taken to address the shortcomings of the government, the opposition and the media, then it is likely that a tragedy such as this will reoccur.

Just before his re-election, President Massoud Barzani invited a number of journalists to speak to them about the issues of the day. At the end of the meeting, Barzani said, “You have been asking me questions. Now it is my turn.”  He asked, “What makes someone a journalist?”

A few tried to answer his question but no answer was really satisfactory.

“So anyone who publishes a paper and insults people becomes a journalist?” the president asked. Nobody disagreed.

Unfortunately, this is part of the reality in today’s Kurdistan. But not every media outlet here is a place for trading insults and not every journalist is an insult trader.

The majority of our journalists want to be professionals, informing and provoking thought in the public and holding those in power to account.

But the onus to do this is on the media itself. This is not an easy task and it will not happen overnight. The media outlets need to persevere in maintaining high professional standards and not get driven by profit or political propaganda regardless of the quality of the content.

Likewise, the government and the political establishment here need to realise that providing factual information to the public will only help their task of governing and not diminish it.

The ruling parties and the opposition have also contributed to getting to this stage. The ruling parties encourage and promote “red-carpet” or pro-government journalism, while the opposition encourages the journalism of dissent.

This unwholesome atmosphere in which the Kurdish media operates makes it easy for people to just defame, insult or praise others with complete disregard to any code of ethics or professional standards. As a result, there is less room for real professional journalists to work up to a good international professional standard.

At the same time, they both encourage and fund shadowy low-level, at times satirical, websites and magazines to say whatever they cannot say in their official media.

Sardasht Osman’s case holds up a mirror to the current sad state of affairs. He wrote for a shadowy outlet, his killing was reported in various ways depending on the media, and the campaign that followed was seized on as an opportunity to make political attacks.

An international journalist based in Erbil, who has been following the development of Sardasht’s case closely, told me, “In Iraqi Kurdistan everyone is shouting and no one is listening.”

This environment is further aggravated by the institutional failure to provide information that the public needs. This ranges from information about the smallest of projects to the top political developments of the region that affect the livelihood of the public.

The government needs to be forthcoming in providing the information to the public. The more information is made available, the less room there will be for rumour and innuendo on the news pages. The more accurate the information, the more sound and professional the analysis and the commentary would be.

It sometimes seems that even basic information about government is regarded as a state secret.

An editor-in-chief of a publication, now supported by the opposition, once told a visiting British parliamentary delegation, “We deliberately publish lies when the official concerned does not respond to us.  

“We publish the lie with the hope that he/she comes out with the truth once the lie is published.”

This is a disgrace to journalism, government and the opposition. But this is the reality of the current state of affairs.

Changing this is the responsibility of all and whoever takes the first step would be the knight in shining armour.

The media needs to provide a high professional standard of journalism that makes the outlet a provider of information, news, analysis and informed and valued views and comments. Not a platform where you are free to say anything you want to.

Both the government and the opposition need to support the media in professionalising and raising the level of the game.

The Kurdistan region’s parliament has to create a legislative, regulatory and institutional framework for the media to evolve from its partisan role to providing a service to the general public.

When the press law was passed in 2008, it was rushed and it was not well studied.

The parliament needs to provide a legal framework that guarantees the right to information and the right to free speech. It also needs to provide a regulatory framework through establishing a media commission for the region.

This commission would be an important step in the right direction. It would be a creature of parliament and it would support the media in the development of free and responsible journalism.

The purpose of the commission will be to defend press freedom and freedom of expression. It will promote the best international standards of news and information gathering, reporting, and editorial commentary. It will do so through a code of ethics and standards, and through the development of realistic professional training.

Another important function for such a commission would be to arbitrate in disputes involving the media, and its decisions would have the force of law.

The commission’s first task would be to propose a local code for journalism that complies with the United Nations Convention on Human Rights and that can be offered for ratification by the Kurdish parliament.

It can also work with the parliament to legislate for the freedom of speech and freedom of information: two key components for creating a good and healthy environment for the media.

All of this does not happen overnight. But the first step of the process must be taken. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before we see another Sardasht Osman.

Hiwa Osman is IWPR Iraq’s country director. He is not related to Sardasht Osman.

The views expressed in the article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.