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Kurdish journalists use IS media strategy to their advantage

Kurdish journalists are trying to counter Islamic State propaganda by showing the world the horrors that the group has committed.
Photographers and members of the media watch the Syrian town of Kobani from atop a hill on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 15, 2014. American-led forces sharply intensified air strikes against Islamic State fighters threatening Kurds on Syria's Turkish border on Monday and Tuesday after the jihadists' advance began to destabilise Turkey.   REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (TURKEY  - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS)   - RTR4A8TR

Before the revolution, the Kurdish media in Syria were at the service of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and private ownership of media outlets was forbidden. There was no freedom of expression in the mainstream media. As a result, journalists, oppositionists and intellectuals created publications to express their different opinions and inclinations.

Following the Arab Spring, and after Western media outlets helped unveil what was really going on and spread the news, social media pages were the best source of information on current events.

In the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, media organizations were weak and not able to wage targeted media wars. But after armed and Islamic groups invaded areas of Iraqi Kurdistan and the government issued a press law in 2007, media outlets and organizations such as Rudaw, Kurdsat and KNN started focusing on these events and the parallel emergence of ideological groups opposing the freedom to do so. Kurdish media outlets documented this phenomenon, especially after the "purification" carried out by armed groups in the region such as the Islamic State (IS).

Bhutan Tahsin, head of Bas News in Erbil, has worked as a journalist for several years. Bas News, which covers Kurdish news, now focuses on spreading awareness and deterring IS' media attacks. 

Bhutan told Al-Monitor, “When IS’ strategy to control regions became clear — a strategy based on scaring and intimidating its ideological opponents — some channels that I would rather not name used the IS invasion of areas in north of the Kurdistan Region as a pretext to … put their discourse at the service of IS. The group has been adopting a savage approach.”

He said, “We sidestepped some media laws and resorted to unprofessional methods to deter this attack. We boycotted the material posted by this organization, be it data or photos on pro-IS social media pages. We benefited from reporting some of IS' acts, like female genital mutilation, in the areas under its control, to tarnish its image. European workshops helped us in this regard, and we worked slowly. Another important issue is that IS burned some peshmerga fighters that it was holding captive to spread fear and panic among Kurdish forces. Such acts might affect European countries, but we derive strength from the terrorist pressure; this increases the morale of Kurds in their fight and revenge. When Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested in Kenya by Turkish intelligence on Feb. 15, 1999, many Kurdish men set themselves on fire to condemn the arrest. We were directly and indirectly threatened because of our work in the media.”

IS’ threats against journalists did not stop. Caricaturist Djiwar Ibrahim saw that it was time to take on the organization in his artistic work, in line with the Kurdish military's efforts. When he drew caricatures targeting IS, he was threatened.

He told Al-Monitor, “When IS invaded the Kurdish regions, I found that it was my duty to fight these people coming from the four corners of the world to murder the innocent, especially my Kurdish fellows. It was an important cause for me. I did all I could to serve my people with my drawings, and I sought to unveil IS’ practices. I know these men have no ethical code or humanitarian virtues. They kill, vandalize and loot everything. When I was threatened on Twitter, I did not care. On the contrary, I grew stronger and more determined to face them, as they were not only harming Kurds, but humanity as a whole.

"Kurds have always supported coexistence, civil peace, fraternity and love among people. This is our goal. In this framework, my war against IS will continue. After the victories that Kurds achieved in Sinjar and Kobani, I realized that my caricatures, which were published on Bas' website, bothered IS, as the organization commented on them and accused me of being a mercenary. IS militants do not care about human beings or have respect for rights. I want the whole world to see my drawings and realize that we are fighting this ideology by all means — pen or sword.”

Zeki Sheikho, a journalist with Kurdsat News, told Al-Monitor, “Undoubtedly, it was not easy for the media to cover the quick global developments and intellectual and ideological regression in the Middle East bred by the barbaric regimes of certain states. Reporters and journalists face death at the hands of different groups while doing their job all the time. In Iraq, as part of this dramatic and unacceptable context of terrorism practiced by IS, the media had a hard time finding out what was happening while covering the events, due to the barbarity that accompanied the expansion of the group. So Kurdsat News had to use all its capacities and transform them into a message of awareness. The outlet also had to develop ways to limit the effects of this savagery in our Kurdish society.

“Most political programs and bulletins shown on our site largely focused on how to face this phenomenon and raise awareness among Kurdish people and organize them. They also shed light on the parties that should be deterred and defamed. Several questions and themes were raised and theses were discussed after the IS attack in the Kurdish regions of Syria and its invasion of some Kurdish areas in Iraq, namely Sinjar in August 2014. Many of our correspondents were sent to the town, and we were in contact with the leaders of the Kurdish forces all the time to find out the latest developments.

“We choose most news in a way that does not lower the morale of our people and resistance forces. IS waged a psychological war and promoted an invincible image of itself. We had to develop our counter-propaganda and make it closer to the truth in order to lower IS’ morale and boost that of our people and democratic forces. This way, we would prove that IS is just a barbaric organization that has no future.”

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