Kurdistan's muckraking media test free speech limits

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

Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images/newscom
Read all about it: In northern Iraq, Kurdish journalists, some with European funding, test the limits of free speech.

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

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.

The article described competing factions, including a tribal-military one led by Mr. Talabani's deputy, Kosrat Rasool, another headed by Talabani's previous deputy, and a third that is more liberal and Western-oriented, led by Barham Salih, who is Iraq's deputy prime minister. It also covered the political roles of other key players too, including Talabani's sons and his wife, Hiro Khan. Talabani's son, Qubad, represents the KRG in Washington. His other son, Bafel, heads the KRG's counter-insurgency unit.

Mira has since published articles digging into the past wars between the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by the region's president, Mr. Barzani, and their subsequent agreements. The fighting ended in 1998 with a Washington-brokered deal. Despite the forming of the KRG later, the region is still divided into two spheres of power: one anchored by Talabani's PUK around Suliemaniyah and the other by Barzani's KDP around Arbil.

"Everything is under their control.... Kurdish political culture is still stuck in history and not producing an alternative to the PUK or KDP," Mira says.

Mira has written about the KRG's decision to work with Ali Bapir, an Islamist leader jailed in a US-run prison in Baghdad for two years on suspicion of being linked to Al Qaeda. He was released in 2005. Mr. Bapir is now in Kurdistan heading the Islamic Group party, with six seats in the local parliament. Bapir sued the magazine after the article ran, and Mira says he now receives frequent death threats on his phone.

"People have expectations and dreams but the current political structure can't fulfill them," says Asos Kamal, who runs Sana TV, a London-based satellite channel that can be seen in Kurdistan. His station, an alternative to the mainstream Kurdish stations owned by the KDP and PUK, is affiliated with an Iraqi political group called the International Freedom Congress, and receives funding from European NGOs.

He spoke during a recent visit to Suliemaniyah as he gathered in a local restaurant with journalists from Hawlati, a weekly newspaper that's often critical of the two main parties and their alleged corruption and cronyism. Hawlati, which means "citizen" in Kurdish, has had two of its editors imprisoned for six months in 2006 over articles published by the paper.

Hawlati's main competitor is another weekly called Awene, or "mirror," that was founded in 2005. The paper receives support from the Dutch Christian aid group, IKV Pax Christi, and Press Now, a Netherlands-based independent media advocacy group.

Ari Harsin is the paper's Arbil bureau chief. He returned to Kurdistan two years ago after living for almost 17 years in the Netherlands, where he worked as a math teacher.

He says he decided to get involved with Awene because he felt the two ruling parties are now off course and are betraying the sacrifices of the Kurdish people. "We have a long way to reach a democratic country and civil society based on equality and human rights," he says.

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