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Kurdish Press: Still a Long Way to Go

Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys a vibrant media scene, but it remains beset with a multitude of problems.
By Mariwan Hama-Saeed

Mariwan Hama-Saeed

Mariwan Hama-Saeed

The Kurdish press has had a tough year, and is facing numerous challenges that need to be overcome in order to secure its future.

Despite its dramatic growth over the last ten years, the independence, credibility and ethics of the Kurdish media continues to come under scrutiny. Just as daunting are the threats – both legal and physical – that media workers have had to endure, particularly in 2010.

This year marked a turning point in the history of Kurdish media. In May, Sardasht Osman, a young student and writer, was kidnapped and shot to death. He had complained to the authorities about receiving threatening messages after he posted a satirical article about Kurdish officials on a website.

The killing was the most shocking of more than 100 violations against journalists – including physical attacks, harassment and dozens of lawsuits.

The media in Iraqi Kurdistan is deeply divided between party-owned and independent outlets. Almost 900 publications regularly hit newsstands, according to the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate – the overwhelming majority of which are mouthpieces for political parties.

This is an unhealthy situation, exposing journalists to danger, never more so than at election time

The March parliamentary ballot was particularly heated, with a powerful Kurdish opposition movement, Change, running against the ruling parties. In the past, Kurds had largely been unified under one bloc, but this time the political competition was fierce – and was played out heavily in the media.

The party media was especially brutal in its elections coverage, carrying out smear campaigns and personal attacks against politician and rival media outlets.

During the election period, the Metro Centre to Defend Journalists recorded 50 cases of police, security forces and party members harassing and beating journalists and preventing them from covering stories. It was a trying time for the media that set the tone for the rest of the year.

Kurdish officials complain that the media, especially the independent outlets which are highly critical of the authorities, are unprofessional and only publish negative stories. They also accuse them of siding with the opposition.

In 2010, there were an unprecedented number of lawsuits, with the Kurdish authorities and, in some cases, powerful businessmen, using Iraq’s defamation laws to seek excessive compensation for critical coverage.

In one case, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party filed a one billion dollar defamation case against an opposition newspaper after it published a report that alleged the party had made millions of dollars from illegal oil. The legal action, the largest in Iraq’s history, is still pending in court.

Shwan Mohamed, editor-in-chief of the Sulaimaniyah-based independent newspaper Awene, says that currently there are 20 lawsuits against his newspaper and staffers. Earlier this month, he spent five days in courts to deal with the various cases.

“They have affected our work,” he said. “We are more careful of what we publish, even though we are certain of the accuracy of the information.”

In short, some journalists are self-censoring, a dangerous precedent for Iraqi Kurdistan’s fledgling press that not only affects the coverage of stories, but also the credibility of the press.

The Kurdish media’s credibility and its independence are both in question, and for good reason. Officials own most of the media and heavily influence content, using their outlets to get their message out and criticise their opponents – often ferociously.

The independent media is also a victim of the politicians’ games by publishing stories planted by officials without questioning their motives or the accuracy of the information.

The Kurdish press often falls prey to yellow journalism, running stories before they are verified or basing stories on conjecture.

During the election campaign, for example, some Iraqi Kurdish media outlets reported that the national campaign cost more than 6 billion US dollars. When I asked some journalists about the source of the information, one of them answered, “Well, there are more than 6,000 candidates in the parliamentary elections and each one spends about 100,000 US dollars. That is more than 6 billion dollars.”

These kinds of articles that rely on assumptions rather than critical thinking and confirming information is all too common in the Kurdish media – but it does not justify the disturbing trend of attacks and lawsuits against journalists, including flimsy defamation cases brought by leading politicians.

Part of the problem is that politicians don’t understand the role of the media, and the other part is they seek to control it.

The mounting pressure is getting to some senior editors, who have indicated to me that they are pessimistic about Kurdish journalism. Progress can be made, but it will be an uphill battle beginning next year.

Some politicians want to solve the journalism quality issue by introducing harsher penalties for journalists, including reinstating prison terms for press-related offences. Legislation has not yet been sent to parliament, but leaders have indicated both in public and private discussions that they intend to amend the 2008 Kurdish press law, which abolished jail sentences for journalists and prevented the government shutting down newspapers.

Kurdish journalists must band together to oppose any new restrictions on the press, and also to raise the standards of the industry. Young journalists are especially eager to learn, and some local publications are admirably running newsrooms with just a handful of old computers. Amid the challenges, the enthusiasm for journalism is a heartening sign that the industry is progressing.

It is true that the Kurdish press can improve its editing and reporting and needs to act more ethically.

But the Kurdish media’s faults don’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to widen rather than restrict press freedom. If officials are serious about solving the problem, they should first cut government and party funding to dozens of publications that don’t care about journalism standards and ensure that politicians respect the press.

The Kurdish media, like the press around the world, will always struggle with professional and ethical issues – however these cannot, and should not, ever be used to restrict the right to freedom of expression for both journalists and citizens.

Mariwan Hama-Saeed is vice-chairman of the Baghdad-based Journalistic Freedoms Observatory and is director of its affiliate, the Metro Centre to Defend Journalists, in Iraqi Kurdistan. He served as editor of the Kurdish edition of IWPR Iraq’s elections newspaper, Metro.

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

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