August 25, 2010
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The question of democracy and press freedom in Iraqi-Kurdistan - By Delovan Barwari

The question of freedom of the press has become one of the most continuous issues debated in Iraqi-Kurdistan, catching the attention of international media, and raising questions on the practice and tolerance of democracy, the level of professionalisms within the journalistic community, and the real intentions of opposition groups.

The revelation of the murder of Sardasht Osman on May 6th incited several fiery protests on the streets of Iraqi-Kurdistan, as the opposition groups and various newspapers instantly blamed the ruling parties for the murder. In no time, the incident gained the attention of some of the most prominent journalists and a New York based watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): prompting them to write a letter to the president of KRG, Massud Barzani with mounting concerns about threats to freedom of press.
Without a doubt, various fundamental issues, common corruption practices and nepotism, have contributed to the exasperation of the psyche of Kurdish society. As a result, the Kurdish opposition groups have utilized these shortcomings as propaganda to expand their influence within the Kurdish society; moreover, on many occasions, a number of independent Kurdish news papers have written provocative articles attacking political parties and politicians with no evidence – violating some of the fundamental principles and ethics of journalism. 

The most recent article published by Rozhnama, an opposition group (Gorran) affiliated newspaper, accused Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of smuggling hundreds of millions of dollars in crude oil to Iran; furthermore, it accused the officials of splitting and pocketing the oil revenues.  Both KDP and PUK instantly denied the accusations as baseless. Fazil Mirani, a member of KDP politburo, filed a one billion dollar defamation lawsuit, and it has been reported by Rudaw, a prominent Kurdish newspaper, that Jalal Talabani, the leader of PUK, will also file a lawsuit against Rozhnama. 
Democracy is an ancient political theory where the government is carried out either directly by the people or by the elected representatives of the people. Today, democracy as an ideology and in practice has evolved vastly, transcending into a liberal form practiced by the great majority of the western and civilized world. In order for a government to become a true democracy, it is required to uphold and respect a common set of principles: Freedom of speech and press, the rule of law, political liberty, religious freedom, equality, and equal protection of its citizens. Nevertheless, democracy is not achieved over night; it is a long journey full of obstacles in which it requires institution development and educating society.

By examining the political system and practices in Iraqi-Kurdistan, it can be stated that KRG is a young democracy in its development stages: It has a popularly elected president, prime minister, and parliamentarians. Furthermore, the existence of numerous political parties, independent newspapers, television stations, political representation of women, and religious groups, validates the notion that democracy exits.

As mentioned, one of the key principals in democracy is freedom of the press. However, this freedom (journalism) has a set of principles attached. The foundation of journalism is objectivity – viewing issues impartially, and being honest and fair about it.  As journalists, their first obligation is to the truth: the information that they deliver must be well researched, valid, non-bias, and as transparent as possible, and they must rely on the customary guidelines in their discipline for verifying information.

Although, a free press is one of the most significant elements of a democracy, it can also be a great danger if not well regulated, especially in the case of Iraqi-Kurdistan: intelligence agencies of the regional hostile regimes (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria) and perhaps other global intelligence agencies can easily penetrate into the media outlets to cause instability and chaos in order to achieve their interest. A prime example is CIA’s penetration into the Iranian media in the early 1950s, in which it successfully undermined and overthrew the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.  It has been reported that many of the articles published in the Iranian media were directly written by the CIA, translated into Farsi, and then published by the agents in Iranian press. New York Times reported, “Despite the doubts, the agency's Tehran station began disseminating "gray propaganda," passing out anti-Mossadegh cartoons in the streets and planting unflattering articles in the local press.”  With that in mind, one must realize that Kurdistan is surrounded by traditional enemies (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria) that are determined to eradicate the gains Kurds have made in recent years. Among many other means, the enemies’ intelligence agencies can exploit the press to cause havoc in Kurdistan.

It is obvious that many factors have contributed to volatile conditions on the ground. On the one hand, the ruling parties must be amenable and genuinely connect to society to better understand the divisive issues that has exasperated a significant segment of the public opinion. Moreover, it is their sole responsibility to transform the dichotomy in Kurdish society caused by the shortcomings. Ignoring the contentious issues will further nurture public’s antipathy, which will only strengthen the opposition groups. KRG must be able to divert the negative energy by systematically examining the problems and generating a viable and permanent solution for resolving the deficiencies. On the other hand, the opposition groups and the press community must be more responsible and professional, as their actions will play in the hands of the enemy and will endanger the stability in Kurdistan. It is their sole responsibility to uphold the core principles in journalism: Following the professional discipline of reporting based on accurate and reliable information, remaining non-biased and basing arguments on valid facts.

To transform a traditionally feudal nation that has experienced decades of oppression and genocide into a modern and democratic society is an intricate task. It is an obligation for all of the components of Kurdish society (ruling parties, opposition groups, press community, and citizens) to rationally defuse the escalated tensions and work hand-in-hand to achieve the ultimate goal. Moreover, it requires pragmatic thoughts with clear mindsets to help positively transform Kurdistan, as the success of such achievement requires collective and constructive contributions from all sectors of society.


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