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Storm Gathers Over Slain Journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan

Political feud fuels dispute over murder of student who criticised the government.
By IWPR
  • Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)
    Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)
  • Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)
    Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)
  • Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)
    Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)
  • Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)
    Recent demonstration by students in Sulaimaniyah over killing of journalist. (Photo: Metrography - Sartip Osman)

The killing of a student journalist has shaken Iraq's Kurdistan region, sparking international concern, furious street protests and a fiercely partisan debate over press freedom.

Critics of the region's government have described the murder of Sardasht Osman, the author of several articles disparaging the political elite, as a brazen attack on dissent.

The government has responded by accusing opposition groups of exploiting the student's death for political gain.

Though united in their condemnation of the crime, both sides disagree bitterly over its motives and its implications.

Kurdistan's top security official told IWPR it was too early to link the killing to press freedom, and dismissed as "baseless" allegations that government forces had any part in the crime.

Media outlets close to the government have downplayed Osman's role as a journalist, portraying his killing primarily as an attempt to destabilise the region.

Private media outlets, including some accused of ties to the opposition, have however emphasised Osman's work as a journalist. They have portrayed his murder as part of an onslaught on press freedom.

"We think the killing is linked to freedom of expression," said Kamal Rauf, editor-in-chief of Hawlati, a privately-owned newspaper often critical of the government.

"We are very angry with the authorities. They have not been serious about such a big issue. They want to frame this as a terror case."

Ahmed Mira, editor-in-chief of Lvin, an anti-government magazine, said there was "no doubt" that Osman had been killed over his writing.

"We have to stop this barbaric campaign against journalists," he said, adding that he feared more blood would be shed if Osman's killers went unpunished.

Two journalists have told IWPR they have been subject to death threats for trying to organise a protest over Osman's death. Helgurd Samad and Rebeen Fatah, both working for outlets often critical of the government, said they received text messages accusing them of taking orders from Change, a Kurdish opposition bloc.

In a provincial election last year, Change dented the majority of the region's governing coalition with a stridently anti-corruption, reformist platform.

Media outlets affiliated to Kurdistan's semi-autonomous government say Change is driving the campaign to link Osman's death to press freedom.

"Osman was more of a student than a journalist," said Karim Qadir, an editor at Khabat, the official newspaper of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP. The party is one of two partners in Kurdistan's coalition government, and is led by the region's president, Massoud Barzani.

"I don't think Osman was killed for his articles. This [view] has been adopted as a pretext by some in the press and by political entities," Qadir said.

Karwan Ali, an editor at Nwe, the official newspaper of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, the KDP's partner in government, said it was too early to assume Osman had been killed for his writing.

"True journalists serve the truth and society through their writings," Ali said. "I haven't seen Osman's name in the press and I haven't seen his writing. So I cannot call him a journalist or any other title."

Both Ali and Qadir expressed shock and sadness at Osman's death and said they hoped his killers would face justice soon.

SECURITY SERVICES REJECT CHARGES

Osman was seized on May 4 as he arrived at the gates of his university in the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. Unknown men bundled him into a vehicle before driving off into the morning rush-hour.

His body was discovered a day later beside a highway in Mosul, a violent city to the west of Erbil. The 23-year-old student of English had reportedly been tortured before being shot twice in the head.

In Erbil the following week, more than a thousand people marched to protest Osman's murder. Most were students in their early twenties, wearing the black attire of mourning.

Held back by riot police, they hurled shoes and water bottles over the blast walls that protect the semi-autonomous region's parliament.

Their slogans blamed the government for inaction over the attack. Speaking individually and without giving their full names, several protesters directly accused the authorities of complicity in Osman's death.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, has condemned the killing and promised a thorough investigation, the results of which it said would be made public. It also cautioned against premature assumptions about the motives behind the attack.

"The government cannot talk about the real motives behind the crime until the necessary investigations are completed," Kawa Mahmoud, a KRG spokesman, told IWPR.

He also said the authorities were ready to follow up any reports of journalists who claimed to have been threatened since Osman's killing.

Satirical articles by Osman were published on websites run by Kurdish dissidents based in Europe. They spoke scathingly of the jet-set lifestyle of the region's leaders.

In a piece published last December, Osman imagined the privileges he would attain if he were to marry the daughter of the region's president, listing luxuries alien to ordinary Kurds. The direct reference to a female member of the president's family would have been seen by many as an infringement of cultural mores in Kurdistan's deeply conservative society.

In a subsequent article, Osman said he would not be silenced by text messages he had received threatening him for his writing. Critics of the Kurdish government say these threats culminated in his death.

Adnan Osman, a legislator with the Change bloc and no relative of the slain journalist, told IWPR there was a "strong possibility" that the killing was linked to the articles criticising the Kurdish leadership. However, he stressed the need to wait for the results of the official investigation.

Osman added that his colleagues in parliament had called for "pressure to be applied on the security apparatus to reveal the circumstances behind this incident".

The office of Masrour Barzani, the head of Kurdistan's Security and Protection Agency, told IWPR the opposition's attempts to politicise the murder had "not been very helpful". Barzani is the son of the region's president and commands key intelligence and security agencies linked to the KDP.

"The killing of Mr Osman shocked us all," said a spokesman from his office. "We cannot jump to any conclusions... and link his killing to the freedom of press."

The spokesman demanded evidence from those who claimed Osman had been killed for his writing. "Otherwise their statements can be libelous," he told IWPR.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

At the demonstration outside the parliament in Erbil, several protesters questioned how Osman could have been snatched from a busy street and moved between several checkpoints on the tightly policed highway to Mosul without the knowledge of the security services.

Mosul is an ethnically mixed city that lies just beyond the official boundary of the Kurdistan region. Security agencies under Erbil's command maintain a strong presence in parts of the city that have a large Kurdish population.

The spokesman from Masrour Barzani's office told IWPR, "The allegations which question the integrity of the security forces are baseless.

"Since there has not been a formal confirmation of the rumours regarding the abduction, it is difficult to know what exactly happened."

The spokesman added that the checkpoints surrounding Mosul were manned by three distinct forces: the United States military, Iraqi guards under the control of Baghdad, as well as Kurdish personnel under Erbil's command.

"We struggle to believe that every side has been involved and participated in the kidnapping," the spokesman said. "There is much more to be uncovered."

An official statement from Masrour Barzani's office, released on May 14, described the inquiry into Osman's killing as "the most extensive criminal investigation in the region".

According to the statement, the inquiry was being coordinated by an interior ministry committee, supported by anti-terrorism units.

A senior European Union diplomat in Erbil praised the Kurdish authorities' track record in investigating terrorism cases, and expressed hopes for similarly swift results in the latest inquiry.

Suspects in previous attacks had been arrested "within days", the diplomat told IWPR, speaking on conditions of anonymity, "The level of efficiency here is really remarkable... [We] trust that local authorities have the experience to conduct this kind of investigation, given their experience in earlier cases."

According to the diplomat, an EU delegation had discussed Osman's death with a senior Kurdish official.

Both the US and the EU have issued statements demanding swift action over the killing, while affirming their support for free speech in the region.

No arrests have so far been made in the investigation. The spokesman from Masrour Barzani's office said the inquiry into "such a rare criminal act" may take longer than some other cases.

While the spokesman did not comment on the progress of the investigation, he said there were indications that Osman "may have been victimised for political gain by the few".

The interior ministry has not made public any further details about the composition of the investigative committee, or given any indication of how long it is expected to take.

KIRKUK KILLING REVISITED

Media watchdogs have repeatedly warned of the erosion of press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan. The region's main news outlets are closely allied to political blocs.

Journalists from the independent press are often accused of favouring the opposition. The overall quality of journalism remains poor, with rumour and slander against leading politicians routinely circulated as news.

A press law passed in 2008 was expected to shore up the fourth estate but has instead been criticised for exposing journalists to the threat of legal action for ill-defined offences such as "insult" and "sowing hatred".

Reporters also say they frequently face assault and interrogation from the security forces. Media rights groups say statutes in the press law that ought to protect journalists from violence have not been enforced.

Nevertheless, kidnappings and killings remain relatively rare in the region. Police and intelligence agencies under the command of the two dominant political parties have largely kept at bay the insurgents and criminal gangs that have made Iraq one of the deadliest countries for journalists.

Osman is the first Kurdish journalist to have been killed in northern Iraq since 2008. His death has revived interest in the previous murder, which remains unsolved.

Soran Mama-Hama, a reporter for Lvin magazine, had been investigating claims of official involvement in organised crime when he was shot dead in the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk.

Though Kirkuk lies outside the official boundary of the Kurdistan region, the attack on Mama-Hama took place in a part of the city under the control of Kurdish security forces.

His brother, Farman Mama-Hama, told IWPR he saw several parallels between the two deaths. Both men were threatened and eventually killed because of their work, he said.

Mama-Hama said he was pleased to see that the killing of Osman had received more attention than that of his brother.

"The outcry is not confined to a certain city... Foreign countries have also taken note," he said.

The diplomat in Erbil confirmed to IWPR that Mama-Hama's killing was also mentioned when the EU delegation met the senior Kurdish official to discuss the Osman case.

The spokesman for Masrour Barzani's office said he was not aware of any "convincing evidence" in the Mama-Hama case. He said the investigation had been further complicated by Kirkuk's position outside the zone officially controlled by the KRG.

Jamal Tahir, the head of the Kirkuk police force, told IWPR the inquiry into Mama-Hama's murder was still in progress.

"Any facts or evidence it discovers will be shared with the public," he said.

IWPR's Iraq editor Neil Arun produced this report from Erbil, with contributions from IWPR-trained journalists Shorish Khalid and Najeeba Mohammed in Sulaimaniyah and Erbil; IWPR local editor Hogar Hasan and a journalist who asked not to be named in Erbil; and Ali Talib, a journalist from Kirkuk. 

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