Kurdish Press Fails to Rise Above Fray

Hopes for independent reporting dashed as media favours particular election candidates.

Kurdish Press Fails to Rise Above Fray

Hopes for independent reporting dashed as media favours particular election candidates.

The media has emerged as a powerful and increasingly partisan player in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elections, extending its influence over politics at the expense of its independence.

Parties have used the press to take pot-shots at competitors or deny them exposure in the run-up to the hard-fought election on Saturday, July 25 for the Kurdistan region’s 111-seat parliament and the presidency.

Some party newspapers have been distributed free, making it more difficult for the independent press to compete. Television has been used as the primary tool for reaching voters in the region’s three provinces, running constant footage of party rallies and leaders being greeted by jubilant crowds.

The trend is not new in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has had a tiny independent press for years but it had a resurgence after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, raising hopes that it might challenge the party media’s dominance.

Independent media suffered a blow in this election when Nawshirwan Mustafa, who broke away from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, to found a leading semi-independent media company, Wisha, formed a list to compete in the parliamentary elections. His Change coalition is now considered the top opposition contender.

The unprecedented competitiveness of the parliamentary election has created more partisan coverage. At least two editors of top party newspapers are running for parliament.

Independent journalists say they are disappointed by the party-dominated independent media.

“People lose the right to choose ... they are always hearing, watching and reading what the parties want,” said Shwan Muhammed, editor-in-chief of the Sulaimaniyah-based newspaper Awene.

Muhammed said his newspaper’s circulation has shrunk by more than ten per cent since campaigning began. He believes this is in large part due to several parties distributing their newspapers for free.

The PUK and its former rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, have dominated politics and media in the region for decades. Their media ignores stories that may not reflect well on the two parties and have attacked competitors in the campaign.

Now allies running together on the Kurdistani list, the two parties ran especially fierce media campaigns against one another during a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s.

Television channels are the most expensive and powerful medium for delivering news in Iraq. In Iraqi Kurdistan, all television channels – both local and satellite – have overt political affiliations. No public service broadcaster exists.

"The media undoubtedly are able to attract new votes, especially television media,” said Nazhad Aziz Surme, editor-in-chief of the KDP-backed Khabat newspaper in Erbil. Surme is a Kurdistani list parliamentary candidate.

The two ruling parties have the most technically sophisticated and widely watched Kurdish television stations. They have broadcast round-the-clock elections coverage focused on their candidates for weeks, including reading sections of the list’s agenda in full. They are running together on the Kurdistani list.

Cameramen have skilfully avoided shots of rival parties, broadcasting scenes of streets packed solely with their coalition’s supporters. While this is often the case in Erbil and Dohuk, where the Kurdistani list dominates public campaigning, supporters of many parties have taken to the streets in the other main city of Sulaimaniyah.

Television stations loyal to the Kurdistani list and Change have also whipped up their supporters by repeatedly showing footage of one group taunting the other. While election fever is running high, the campaign season has remained largely peaceful.

Iraq’s election commission rules bar campaigning 48 hours ahead of elections and partisan television stations and newspapers have responded to the deadline by running images and footage without commentary. Typical images show early voting or party supporters dancing with the flag of their respective list.

Meanwhile, Mustafa’s Wisha media company continues to concentrate heavily on corruption inside the government and parties.

While the KDP and PUK media have openly backed the Kurdistani list – including running the list’s slogans on the masthead of a party newspaper – Wisha has primarily run negative stories to discredit its chief competitor in the elections.

Wisha rarely broadcasts or prints news stories from its competitors and rarely runs responses from the Kurdistani list.

But Adnan Osman, editor-in-chief of Wisha’s Rozhnama newspaper, says Mustafa does not interfere with news coverage and says the title will remain critical if Change candidates are elected to parliament.

Osman, a former independent news editor who is now a Change list candidate, says his newspaper’s coverage and Change’s agenda are one and the same: to reveal corruption and injustice.

“Of course the priority is for anything which would be good for our list's campaign,” he said. “But in the newspaper, we care about news that is most important for the public."

The independent press has also been accused of bias and sitting in the opposition camp, particularly after independent newspapers took a stand against the KRG’s constitution.

Surme said the non-party media “seem to be non-partisan, but they are misleading the public".

Some citizens are also critical of the media, saying they are tired of the lack of independence.

"We do not know which media to believe. They are not impartial and they are fighting with each other,” said Payam Abdulrazaq, an administrative assistant. “Independent media are so small in number that they cannot fight all the many partisan and wealthy media. So voters stick to their [party’s] media."

Rebaz Mahmoud is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR Iraq editor Tiare Rath contributed to this report.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
Support our journalists