Atrocities against journalists undermine global reputation of the Kurds

Atrocities against journalists undermine global reputation of the Kurds
Comment: The impunity of those who murder press workers erodes claims that Kurdistan operates under the rule of law, writes Aras Ahmed.
6 min read
17 Aug, 2016
Security issues and economic uncertainty overshadow human rights violations in the Kurdistan region [Anadolu]

Since the leading role played by Kurds in defeating the Baathist regime amid the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdistan region has been in the international spotlight.

More recently, the bravery of peshmerga forces in pushing back the Islamic State group, defeating them in numerous confrontations from Kobane to Shangal has been acknowledged around the globe - but attacks on freedom of the press and the killing of journalists has seen scant coverage.   

The kidnapping, torture and murder of Wedat Duhoki (aka Wedat Hussein Ali), a reporter with Roj News Agency, on August 13 shows that the Kurdistan region - framed as a safe haven - is no safe zone for local journalists.

Duhoki was killed in Duhok city, a stronghold of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, but the violence towards and murder of journalists in the Kurdistan region goes back at least to 2008, when the proliferation of the press and widespread political corruption blossomed.

Soran Mama Hama was killed in 2008 in his home in Kirkuk, a city then under the administration of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, reportedly due to his work uncovering a huge network of prostitutes controlled by the city's Kurdish politicians. His final report was titled Prostitution Invades Kirkuk.

Zardasht Othman was kidnapped on May 3, 2010, in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region. He was snatched in front of a crowd at Salahaddin University, and was found dead two days later. Zardasht had been fiercely critical of the KDP and its political leadership.

Kawa Garmyani, another anti-corruption journalist, was shot dead as his mother watched, outside their home in Garmyan, part of Slemani province. Kawa criticised PUK politicians, highlighting corruption and land theft.

These assassinations share some basic characteristics.

All four victims came from working or middle-class families. Soran, Zardasht and Kawa could hardly provide for their families. Relatives could not afford to appoint lawyers to investigate their deaths in courts controlled by political parties - not a single case has resulted to the benefit of the victims.

Further, none of these journalists had tribal protection. Political parties have used this lack of accountability to avoid bringing the perpetrators to justice.

All four had received death threats. Darband Hussein, Wedat's brother, said KDP security forces known as Asayish previously threatened the reporter. Wedat had previously been kidnapped and thrown into a vehicle. Similarly, Kawa was threatened and arrested several times - and even set up a tent in front of the court demanding justice.

Their killings were planned well in advance.

Interestingly, they all were killed during an escalation of the crisis, when political parties encountered political hostility.

Soran was killed when hundreds of documents were leaked linking politicians to high-profile moral and financial corruption, amid growing demand from the public to bring them to court. Zardasht was killed during a crackdown on the region's free press amid strong public demands via social networks for basic services. Kawa was killed at a time where fracture and division within the PUK ranks reached its peak.

Murdering journalists allows the authorities to terrorise the public

Apart from the reportedly PKK-leaning Wedat, the journalists were not members of any political party and were not working for partisan media at the time of their death.

Murdering journalists allows the authorities to terrorise the public by causing huge damage to the lives of those who oppose corruption and who bring to light the dirty works of politicians. While politicians would want to intimidate people into silence, their merciless and illegitimate crimes unite people and ultimately weaken their positions.

If the perpetrators of these murders were brought to justice, the intimidation tactics, closure of press offices and the killing of journalists would have decreased by now. In fact, killing journalists openly and throwing their bodies in the roads only authenticates the argument that the killers want to implant fear in the public heart and mind.   

For any authority to work with legitimacy, it has to preserve the lives of journalists and those who are vulnerable.

The principles of democracy will be strong when those who represent public opinion are secure and respected. The rule of law must protect the weak and those without tribal or political support. For any social institution or lawful establishment to function properly, they must treat the citizenry without discrimination or political prejudice.

But instead of bringing Wedat's murderers to justice, the five major blocs in the Kurdish parliament merely condemned his killing and called for investigatory committees. Parliament itself has been paralysed since October 2015.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, has ordered an investigation. Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, the parliamentary speaker - who has not been allowed to enter Erbil since October 2015 - says Wedat's is a sign of an oppressive anti-democracy authority.

Roj News Agency released a statement holding the KDP responsible. Human rights groups, consulates and civil society organisations also denounced the murder, calling on the authorities to bring the killers to justice.

Kurdish authorities have allowed demonstrations, rallies, and protests condemning the murders. Even legal committees were formed to investigate the crimes - but all of them were established only to distort the media, mislead public opinion and twist the truth of the cases.

Any civil activity only works when there is rule of law and democracy. At the end, the courts of Erbil and Duhok are controlled by the KDP, while Slemani court is controlled by the PUK.      

Security issues amid economic uncertainty have since 2014 engulfed the Kurdistan region, leaving little room for human rights violations and confiscation of freedoms to be covered by the international media.

The kidnap, torture and murder of Wedat and his comrades undermine the prestige of the Kurdistan region

Had the Kurdish political leadership and rulers spent the country's wealth on building schools and universities, it would have helped them create honest and trustworthy individuals and politicians who believe in the rule of law.

Had they held clean elections without fraud and other irregularities, had they build upon the Kurdish spirit of resistance and resilience, had they brought the perpetrators to justice, it would have given them enough reason and logic to survive any conflict or crisis - and finally gain the trust of the public.  

In addition to delays in salaries, economic crises, and the mismanagement of natural resources, President Barzani's two terms in office expired in 2013.

The kidnap, torture and murder of Wedat and his comrades undermine the prestige of the Kurdistan region on the world stage, eroding press freedom and degrades Kurdish people everywhere.

The murder of journalists is tangible proof that human rights groups and the wider international community can exploit to disregard the Kurdish question at a time when the peshmerga fight against one of the darkest and ruthless forces in history.

Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelance journalist. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART, an independent English magazine that focuses on literature and society. He has contributed to Fair Observer, The World Weekly and Your Middle East, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @arasok

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.