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

Kurdish Media Freedoms Still Under Threat

Death of journalist and subsequent crackdown on press freedom have raised serious questions about claim that region is democratic model for rest of country.
By Mariwan Hama-Saeed

Mariwan Hama-Saeed

Mariwan Hama-Saeed

On the morning of May 4, 2010, a group of gunmen kidnapped a journalist and student in front of the university of Salahadeen in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The following day, the body of 23-year-old Sardasht Osman was found in Mosul. A single bullet had torn through his skull, and pictures of his corpse showed signs of torture on his face and neck. He was the first journalist to be assassinated in Iraqi Kurdistan in at least two decades.

The news spread throughout Iraq’s Kurdish region within hours, and sent shockwaves through the community. Months before, Osman had written satirical articles critical of the Kurdish leadership, and other pieces in which he had foretold his own death.

After the details of the case emerged – including that he was kidnapped on a busy street during rush hour - the public, journalists and civil society organisations started pressing the authorities to launch an investigation. People were further moved by Sardasht’s death when they found out that he had been threatened months before his kidnapping.

In late January, he published a prophetic online article. “Over the past few days, they have for the first time told me that my time is ticking; or as they said, I ‘no longer have permission to breathe in this city’ , ” he wrote. “But I care neither about death nor about torture. I’m waiting … to meet my killers. I just pray that they will give me a tragic death that suits my tragic life.”

He did not identify who “they” were, and it is a question that lingers today.

Since Iraqi Kurdistan obtained semi-autonomy from the former Baath regime in 1991, nothing has impacted press freedom and freedom of expression more than Sardasht’s tragic murder.

Shortly after his body was found, demonstrations were held in many parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad and abroad calling for an independent investigation into his kidnapping and killing.

Under pressure from local and international organisations, Kurdistan region president Massoud Barzani ordered an inquiry, but it was deeply disappointing from the beginning. For example, the authorities never revealed the identities of the members of a committee investigating the case. And after a four-month inquiry, the outcome shocked both the public and advocates of press freedom.

According to its findings, released in a 430-word statement, the committee claimed in September 2010 that Sardasht had links with Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Islam and that the group murdered him after he failed to carry out an unspecified task for them. Ansar al-Islam denied the committee’s claim.

The explanation was deeply troubling and implausible, particularly given that Sardasht was a secularist who admired western philosophers and never mentioned Islam in his writing.

The committee also claimed that they had arrested a suspect in the case. Since then, there has not been a public trial for any suspect, nor have there been any updates about the case.

I do not think we will ever see justice for Sardasht.

For years, the Kurdish authorities have portrayed Iraqi Kurdistan as “the Other Iraq” , where freedom of the press is respected and democracy is on track. Sardasht’s death and a subsequent crackdown on freedoms have raised serious questions about the claim that region is a democratic model for the rest of the country.

His death occurred at a time when Kurdistan witnessed the emergence of an opposition movement that challenged the region’s two ruling parties. Since then, the authorities have accused the opposition of taking advantage of Sardasht’s murder to mobilise the public against the ruling parties.

Sardasht’s death for the first time raised questions about the limits and costs of freedom of expression in Iraqi Kurdistan. In interviews that I conducted with journalists following his death, the majority stated that they were practicing self-censorship to avoid possible retaliation from the authorities.

Since Sardasht’s death, press freedom and freedom of expression have dramatically declined in the region.

Since his death, the Metro Centre to Defend Journalists has documented more than 250 violations against journalists in the region. On February 19 , 2011, for instance, nearly 50 gunmen raided Nalia radio and television, a newly established satellite channel, and set the three-storey building alight. A few weeks later, gunmen stormed and vandalised an independent community radio station in Kalar, Sulaimaniyah province.

Last year, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, one of the two ruling parties, filed numerous defamation lawsuits against opposition and independent media, including a billion-dollar lawsuit against an opposition channel.

In December 2010, the Kurdistan parliament - where the KDP and its ally the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, hold the majority - passed a controversial law to “regulate” demonstrations. Under the law, officials have rejected many licenses for protests.

Nevertheless, pro-reform demonstrations in Sulaimaniyah have grown and in recent months thousands took to the streets to call for an end to corruption and better services. But these protests were silenced after a Kurdistan regional government crackdown.

Security forces opened fire on protesters, arrested organisers and banned unlicensed demonstrations..

There is no doubt that the freedom of the press and expression in Iraqi Kurdistan are under threat, and it seems that those calling for restrictions of these rights have the upper hand.

The good news, however, is that the movement to push for more freedoms – which began following the death of Sardasht - has only grown bigger. It cannot be ignored, and is unlikely to dissipate. While it may take years or even decades, press freedom and freedom of expression will ultimately prove triumphant.

Mariwan Hama-Saeed is director of the Metro Centre to Defend Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan . He is an editor and online training coordinatorfor IWPR.

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

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