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Democracy and free expression under threat in Iraqi Kurdistan

“You have guns, we have pens,” was the message that the Sulaymaniyah-based independent newspaper Hawlati (Citizen) printed on an otherwise blank front page on February 24 in a bold protest against a spate of threats, harassment and physical violence against journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan in the run-up to a parliamentary election on March 6.

Hawlati’s front page is just one example of the growing protests by Kurdish intellectuals and independent media against abuses by the Kurdish security forces and by the supporters and security forces of the two parties that control the Kurdistan Regional Government – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The newspaper Awene, Radio Nawa, the television station Kurdish News Network (KNN) and Speda, a TV station that belongs to the opposition Kurdish Islamic Union (Yekgirtu), issued a joint statement on February 23 condemning the recent violations of free expression and media freedom in Kurdistan.

Asos Hardi, Awene’s founder and head of the company that publishes it, said, “The authorities do not stop talking about freedom of expression, constantly boasting of the media’s independence. But these words are meaningless. In practice, the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan do not believe in freedom of expression.” Hardi won the 2009 Gebran Tueni Prize for the defence of press freedom, which is awarded by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

Anwar Bazgr, the head of a press freedom defence committee formed by the Union of Kurdistan Journalists, has also condemned the recent attacks and has called on political parties to respect a law protecting journalists that was passed by Kurdistan’s parliament.

Hawlati editor Kamal Rauf told Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), “I called Kurdistan’s prime minister, Dr Barham Salih, to talk about the recent incidents involving journalists. He told me he was going to request an investigation.”

In a Hawlati editorial about the abuses, Rauf appealed directly to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, “As free and independent journalists, we have improved the media’s level of impartiality and independence in the reader’s interests but now the security forces are attacking us and beating us without reason.”

The PUK’s own security forces, which are regarded as illegal, are alleged to have been responsible for most of the attacks on journalists in Sulaymaniyah since the start of the election campaign.

Some, but by no means all, of the press freedom violations of the past week are summarised below:

  • Security forces attacked and beat Hawlati reporter Soran Ahmed in Sulaymaniyah at 7:50 p.m. on February 20, seized his mobile phone and camera and shut him in the boot of a car for more than half an hour. He got his phone and camera back when he was freed, but the data on both of them had been erased.
  • Two Speda television journalists were attacked in Erbil on February 19.
  • Ara Ibrahim, the publisher of Hawlati, and Saman Majid of the magazine Livin and the TV station Gorran (Change) were attacked by security forces in Sulaymaniyah while covering the election campaign on the evening of February 18.

“We were taking photos in Sahollaka Street, especially of a man who had been injured by members of the security forces, when individuals in civilian dress ordered us to stop, saying they were authorised by the PUK to confiscate our cameras,” Ibrahim told RSF. “One of them managed to take my camera. Then he began hitting him and insulting me. Saman managed to get away.”

Ibrahim, who still has not got his camera back, is the third Hawlati journalist to be attacked in Sulaymaniyah. An independent biweekly, Hawlati was founded in November 2000 with the aim of defending free expression, reinforcing civil society and helping the development of democratic debate.

Dawoud Baghstani, the editor of the magazine Israel-Kurd, who is also a local political figure and a member of Kurdistan’s Jewish minority, was attacked in a restaurant in Erbil on February 18.

“I was invited to dine in a restaurant in the city’s Ankawa neighbourhood,” he told RSF. “After my arrival, I was attacked by the bodyguards of Dr Nuri Othman, the head of the Kurdistan cabinet’s secretariat, who was also there. There were about 25 soldiers at the restaurant. They tried to scare me. It was clearly linked to my recent criticism of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Othman disputes this version of the incident, claiming that his bodyguards just defended him. “I was in a restaurant with foreign journalists,” he told Awene. “Dawoud Baghstani was also there. He brandished his pistol and insulted me and Iraqi Kurdistan. I just asked by bodyguards to disarm him.”

Baghstani said he intended to bring a complaint against Othman. “Masoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan, must investigate what happened,” he said. “I will file a complaint although I am sure the courts will support him.

He said, “The KDP and PUK do anything they want against journalists, who are the victims of frequent attacks and cannot work freely. Democracy and free expression are in danger in Kurdistan. International organisations must act to put an end to this harassment of independent journalists, otherwise we risk going back to the darkest years of Baathism.”

Shaswar Mama of, the official website of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was attacked by PUK and KDP supporters in the city of Raniya as he and KNN reporter Karwan Anwar were taking photos in the city’s market on February 18.

A Hawlati photographer had already been attacked there on February 16, when his camera was broken and his photos were erased.

Adnan Othman, a former Hawlati editor who is now an MDC parliamentary representative and editor of Rojname, a newspaper that supports the MDC, has received many death threats by email and SMS. He was also insulted by KDP and PUK supporters after he referred to the security forces that had attacked MDC supporters as illegal and called them “militias.”

Responding to these comments in a speech at the opening of a students’ conference in Erbil on February 24, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani said: “There is no place in Kurdistan for those who say that the province’s security forces are militias. I see nothing to stop me from acting against these people.”

Date posted: February 26, 2010 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 138