Between Freedom and Abuses: The Media Paradox in Iraqi Kurdistan

Reporters Without Borders, Mission Report
November 2010

Reporters Without Borders is an international organisation, registered in France as a non-profit, and has consultant status at the United Nations. It has been fighting for press freedom on a daily basis since it was founded in 1985.

In one of their latest reports, Between Freedom and Abuses: The Media Paradox in Iraqi Kurdistan, they delve into the tense relationships that exist between the government and journalists. All of the country’s actors and international observers agree that remarkable progress has been made in the last ten years, from an economic and political, as well as institutional viewpoint. However, there remains a profound lack of understanding between authorities and media professionals, as neither camp seems to accept the role of, or necessity for, the other.

In the past few years, the number of media outlets in Iraqi Kurdistan has literally exploded. In this region of 83,000km2, there are over 850 media outlets (including 415 newspapers and magazines). 5,000 journalists are registered with the KJS.  This boom can be explained in part by the relative ease with which groups can open new media outlets. Authorisation is routinely granted to those wishing to obtain a print media licence.

With virtually all media in Kurdish, Kurdishness is the core of the region’s media identity. In addition to the language, most news coverage is devoted to Kurdish issues.

Most independent media groups are currently headquartered in Silêmanî, which the report refers to as the ‘rebellious and cultural city par excellence of the region.’

Nearly all of Iraqi Kurdistan’s media outlets are partisan, affiliated with one political party or another. Some media groups have taken on the role of de facto opposition parties, and become involved as political actors. Hoshyar Abdulah Fatah, Editor-in-Chief of the Kurdish News Network (KNN) Channel, confirmed that ‘in the absence of genuine political opposition, this role is played by the media, even though it should only be a counter-force. It is important that the media ultimately play its rightful role—that of a fourth power.’

Much of the current situation is better understood by looking into the history of media in the region. Until the 1991 uprising, ‘media outlets’ in Iraqi Kurdistan were instruments of political propaganda used by resistance movements and the armed struggle. Forced to operate clandestinely, they played a role in the movement’s internal organisation, informing militants about resistance activities and promoting their allegiances. These outlets also had an external purpose: to counteract the messages publicised by Saddam Hussein’s regime. An example of such media is Baray Kurdistani (Kurdistan Front), which was founded in the mountains in 1988.

After 1991, all of the region’s political parties continued to have their own media organisations, including local TV stations. In 1992, a press law was introduced. Following the May elections, a gradual de facto polarisation of the media occurred in this region. In that same year, the PUK launched its daily Kurdistani Nwe (New Kurdistan) and its TV station Kurdistan People TV. For its part, the KDP resumed publishing its daily Brayati (Brotherhood). In November, other newspapers appeared such as Harem (Region). Some Kurdish intellectuals, among them Bakhtyar Ali, Mariwan Qani’, Aras Fataha, Ismail Hama Amin, also launched a magazine called Azadi (Freedom), deemed critical of the state.

In 1994, some left-wing intellectuals created the weekly newspaper Amro (Today), which was considered non-partisan. They were soon forced to cease their activities, the tone of their newspaper having been judged too critical. Interviewed by Reporters Without Borders, Asos Hardi, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Awene and founder of the newspaper, went so far as to state that ‘it was simply impossible to publish something that was not in line.’

It was in this context that Tariq Fatih, who then owned Ranj Press, launched the newspaper Hawlati early in 2000. He surrounded himself with several independent writers and authors living in Kurdistan (mainly Silêmanî) or abroad.

Among them were Asos Hardi, Rebwar Siwayli (a lecturer at Salahaddin University), Kamal Rauf, Shwan Mohammad, Adnan Othman, Sardar Aziz, and Mariwan Qani’.  Said  Hardi:

We felt that we needed to create such a media in order to be free to publish what we wanted, and to build a sort of bridge between the two administrations. We applied for the permit. No one wanted to display their hostility to this project. They thought that we would not make it financially. Some were also betting on internal strife, others that we would fall into the grip of a political party we would have joined. None of that happened. We managed to stay together, despite our differences of opinion.

In 2003, the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime marked a turning point for the Kurds’ political history and for their media. ‘The censorship which was prevailing under Saddam Hussein disappeared, paving the way for an era of freedom conducive to the emergence of unlimited media,’ stated Farhad Awni, President of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate (KJS).

Barham Salih, PM of KRG: I want a free press, but the current situation is tantamount to anarchy, and that could be used against press freedom. What is necessary is to regulate the current system.

The KJS formed in 2003 as a result of a merger between two journalist syndicates: the Journalists Syndicate in Silêmanî and the Press Syndicate in Hewlêr.

RWB, after extensive interviews, devised the media of the region into four categories:

Group 1: Media groups directly affiliated with the ruling political parties (ex.: KDP’s daily Khabat, the Gali Kurdistan Channel, launched in 2008 by the PUK);

Group 2: Media groups indirectly affiliated with the ruling political parties, also known as ‘shadow media’ (the newspaper Rudaw and Civil Magazine funded primarily by the KDP, and the newspaper Aso funded by the PUK);

Group 3: Media groups directly affiliated with opposition political parties (ex.: the Speda TV satellite channel created by the Islamic Union in 2008; the satellite news channel KNN launched by the company Wesha in 2008, and the Jama’a Islamiya party’s weekly, Komal);

Group 4: Media groups which claim to be independent (Hawlati, Awene, Lvin and smaller publications such as the Standard and Chatr Press).

While several publications fall into Group 4, RWB asks what does independence really mean? There is no real consensus on what independence actually means. Political? Economic? Editorial?

Regardless of independence, numerous ‘red lines’ exist that cannot be crossed. What complicates matters is that red lines vary depending on political affiliation and geographical location. There are a few constants among the ‘red lines’ and they include: religion, sex and/or sexual preferences, tribal/historical leaders, corruption, neighbouring countries, and Kirkuk.

There is an incredible amount of mistrust between politicians and the media. Politicians do not grasp the importance of the media and journalists lack the needed degree of professionalism for their work. In fact, RWB identified the lack of training for the region’s journalists as a major problem in its report. Journalists lack professional skills and do not know the difference between opinion and information, or criticism and defamation. Farhad Awni, president of KJS, said that 97% of the journalists are not professionals and they have no concept of ethics or moral obligations.

Journalists also have to deal with threats, prosecution, and assaults. There is an excessive number of complaints against the media. Some journalists have been physically assaulted for their writings, primarily by uniformed police officers, government security forces (Asayesh) or even the PUK or KDP security forces. Some journalists have received death threats and a couple have been murdered.

Reporters Without Borders offers many recommendations in its report for the government, media outlets, political parties, and journalists. To see the recommendations or to read the entire 21-page report, download it here (.pdf).

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