Mission Journal: The Kurdish conundrum–more outlets but not more ‘news’

In the stairwell between the newsroom and studios of Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) stand a charred monitor, a burnt vision mixer, and smashed camera lens. They make up a display of equipment damaged when armed men set fire to the station in Sulaymaniyah, a city in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan which is home to much of the Kurdish media.

The exhibit tells part of the story of the emerging independent media in the Kurdish region. A newly founded station ignores an anonymous threat to stop covering anti-government protests in 2011; more than 40 men then storm the building and torch it but the attack is never fully investigated; no one is brought to justice; the identities of those who ordered the assault is an open secret among journalists but they are afraid to speak out; the station is rebuilt and starts broadcasting again but this time editors know where the redlines are.

I visited NRT as part of a CPJ mission to Kurdistan last week to present our report on press freedom, “Mountain of impunity looms over Kurdistan journalists,” to the government and to meet with journalists.

The last time CPJ was here, in 2008, President Masoud Barzani pledged to create “an atmosphere that is conducive to journalism.” In some respects the former guerrilla leader has honored that pledge. Television channels and newspapers abound. The economy is growing and compared with the rest of Iraq, the Kurdish north is an oasis of stability and security. The national assembly has even passed an access to information law.

But the past six years have also been marred by the unsolved murders of two reporters, a spate of attacks and threats against journalists, and the withdrawal of advertising by government and government-affiliated companies to cash-strapped independent newspapers.

In our meetings in the capital Erbil, ministers acknowledged that the Kurdish Regional Government had fallen short of its commitments to press freedom, particularly in the cases of murdered journalists Sardasht Osman and Kawa Garmyane.

“The government, from the president to the prime minister and across its branches, takes those cases seriously and will do everything it can to ensure justice,” Interior Minister Karim Sinjari told CPJ.

Our delegation, which included Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour, insisted in meetings with senior officials and political party leaders–including Iraq’s powerful first lady, Hero Talabani–that impunity was an ugly stain on the government’s press freedom record that must be removed.

Barzani’s chief of staff, Fouad Hussein, said the president had formed a committee to investigate the Garmyane murder but acknowledged it had not yet made much progress.

“We know we made mistakes and we have shortcomings,” Hussein said of the government’s press freedom record. “But we are learning from the past.”

That was a theme that emerged in most of our contact with officials: acknowledgement of failings and an appeal for patience as the still-relatively-new autonomous region worked on improving press conditions and training a bureaucracy unused to dealing with reporters. Then came the inevitable pivot to the “unprofessionalism” of journalists who brought many of their troubles on their own heads by running unsubstantiated stories.

We shared these and other government complaints and promises with more than 70 journalists and editors a few days later in Sulaymaniyah at a joint press conference with the Metro Center, a local press freedom group, and then in private meetings with news outlets.

The response, to put it politely, was skeptical.

“The government is very hypocritical,” said NRT station manager Twana Osman. “Making noises about press freedom but not doing much about it.” The channel made a documentary to mark the first anniversary of its arson attack but was again warned off airing it. The night the piece was due to be broadcast, the station’s satellite signal mysteriously dropped.

Osman said the station does sometimes censor itself. He can talk about corruption in general terms but does not delve into details.

Several editors of small independent newspapers said they pulled stories only if publishing would put their journalists in physical danger.

“Most press freedom violations are committed by the security forces. That is why there is no comeback,” said Kajaw Jamal Jalal, deputy chief editor of the independent newspaper Hawlati (Citizen). He said that impunity in the Osman and Garmyane murders increased fears on the ground. “These things could happen to any of us and no one would be charged.”

Journalists have to contend with an array of security forces. The political parties that waged a civil war in the 1990s–Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan–each kept their own security force in their respective strongholds, Barzani in Erbil and Talabani in Sulaymaniyah, when they eventually agreed to share power.

Huge blocks of the Kurdish media are either loyal to or owned by one of these two camps. In the middle are small papers like Hawlati and Awene (Mirror) and broadcasters like NRT.

The papers try to play a watchdog role, probing corruption and mismanagement, but they are in a parlous financial state, not just because print circulation is plummeting but also because government and businesses friendly with government are no longer placing advertisements with them.

“The government is diverting (advertising) revenue from newspapers as an attempt to silence them,” Jalal said.

He, along with Asos Hardi, manager and editor of Awene, also complain of being shut out by the government, which favors supporters and denies access and information to independent media.

Editors all complained that legislation meant to protect journalists, such as the 2007 Press Law and the newly adopted Access to Information Law, simply were not enforced.

“Our leaders talk to the foreign press rather than us,” Hardi said, noting that Barzani had never given his paper an interview. Other editors voiced the same complaint about being shut out from the powerful.

Numerous journalists said the government cared little about public opinion inside Kurdistan but was concerned with projecting a positive image abroad.

“It is important that you are here,” said journalist Rahman Gharib, coordinator of the Metro Center. “And that you come back.”

Whether or not we go back any time soon, CPJ will be watching that the assurances we were given by authorities, including pledges to review the Press Law and pursue investigations into attacks on journalists, are honored.

[Reporting from Erbil and Sulaymaniyah]