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Kurdistan's muckraking media test free speech limits

Editors and reporters risk jail time as they expose cronyism and push Iraqi leaders for reforms.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2008

Read all about it: In northern Iraq, Kurdish journalists, some with European funding, test the limits of free speech.

Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images/newscom


Suliemaniyah, Iraq

Last year, Ahmed Mira published a cover story in his magazine Leveen titled "The legacy of the sick man."

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The story was about the health problems of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and a bitter leadership struggle within his political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Mira, who is the magazine's editor, was arrested by Kurdistan's powerful military security. He says he was interrogated, subjected to "psychological torture," and held for 13 hours before being released.

But Mira isn't backing off. He continues to publish hard-hitting investigative reports and to tackle taboo or sensitive topics such as government corruption, intra-Kurdish rivalries – anything that may be disparaging of officials and the activities of Al Qaeda-linked militants.

He's among a group of Kurdish journalists, mostly based in Suliemaniyah, a major city in northern Iraq, who are pushing for reforms in Kurdistan. Some are working through purely personal initiative, while others are receiving support from European nonprofit and media-advocacy groups.

Last December, they organized demonstrations urging the region's president, Massoud Barzani, not to sign a new law intended to muzzle the media. He did not. The Kurdistan regional government (KRG) says the freedom enjoyed by the media here is proof of a budding democracy, compared with other parts of Iraq where journalists are often killed because of what they say or write.

According to Reporters Without Borders, seven journalists have been killed in Iraq since the start of 2008. It also reports that 215 members of the media (including 22 foreigners) have died in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March 2003.

Mira and his colleagues say that they will continue their efforts to challenge Kurdish leaders until they achieve political reforms in Kurdistan. "I am tired of politics as usual, I want change in Kurdistan. We are writing these articles with our blood," says Mira, speaking at the offices of Leveen, which means "movement" in Kurdish. The monthly magazine, founded six years ago, is independent, he says. Mira is a native of Suliemaniyah which is considered by Kurds to be the region's intellectual center.

The article about the Iraqi president, which landed Mira in jail briefly last year, took aim at the man known to many Kurds as "Mam Jalal" or "Uncle Jalal," who is one of the longest-serving figures in Iraqi Kurdish politics.