ERBIL, Iraq — Despite the bright picture of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region seen by outsiders, it is in a crisis of free expression. While Western leaders often praise its stability, relative prosperity and democratic institutions, the region — soon to hold a referendum on independence — is not a friendly place for independent-minded media workers and local journalists. US support for Kurdish politicians and soldiers battling the Islamic State (IS) may be inadvertently facilitating a further crackdown on critical voices and a growing authoritarianism.
"First they try to bribe you," said Sherwan Sherwani, a Kurdish journalist, of Kurdish authorities dissatisfied with independent reporting. Sherwani’s magazine, Bashur, had been digging up the dirty pasts of local politicians for several years, and authorities have had enough.
To buy his silence, Sherwani had been approached by the Parastin, the secret police organization of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in late 2013. "They said, 'You can have the directorship of an organization, and bring 200 friends with you,'" said Sherwan. He refused the offer, and then the threats began.
In July 2016, a friend in parliament called Sherwani to let him know that an assassination was being plotted against him. This was the only way, Sherwani said, that he was able to avoid death.
But others were not so lucky. Later that summer, Wedad Hussein Ali, a young journalist critical of the KDP, the largest of Kurdistan’s two ruling parties (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, being the other), turned up dead after being kidnapped by men in unmarked cars. In December 2016, the body of Shukri Zaynadin, a cameraman working with a news network affiliated with a Kurdish opposition party, was found in mysterious circumstances.
Sherwani said he has been threatened, harassed and prevented from reporting recently, too. In February, Sherwani and a friend went to the far northwest of Iraq to report on the Turkish bombing of the Iraqi bases of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Kurdish militant group regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey.
“The Asayesh [Kurdistan’s intelligence agency] didn’t allow us to enter the area. I had friends, though, from KurdSat and from NRT who got to the checkpoint and thought they could help me get through,” Sherwani said, referring to two large Kurdish media channels.
“But the Asayesh stopped them at the checkpoint because they knew I was coming, and they knew my friends wanted to help me get in to report,” said Sherwani, noting the Asayesh’s hostility to independent reporters covering politically sensitive events.
Safeen Dizayee, a KRG spokesperson, treated Shirwani’s claims with skepticism. He told Al-Monitor, “In this country, there is still no clear definition of who is a journalist and who is not. They just grab pen, paper and a camera and go. Naturally, in a country at war, access to conflict areas would be limited. Security people are cautious about access no matter what the [media] outlet is.”
For Niyaz Abdulla, a journalist in Erbil, the decline of media freedom in the Kurdistan Region is something she witnessed over the years.
After 2003 and the toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein by American forces, Abdulla said, “At the same time that we were seeing an opening, we were also seeing a huge rise in abuses. We saw Kawa Germyani and Sardasht Osman killed,” referring to two Kurdish journalists believed to have been killed for their reporting on the corruption of Kurdish politicians, even calling out President Massoud Barzani’s family.
But the opening, it seems, is over. As a woman, Abdulla said, she has been the target of frequent sexual threats. Recently, messages from government supporters rolled in in response to an article she wrote in December connecting KRG authorities to the murders of several local journalists. Abdulla said that she was told, “If only you lived under an IS emir [commander], so that they would do to you what they did to the Yazidi girls,” evoking IS militants’ infamous capture and rape of Iraq’s Yazidi minority women.
The threats and intimidation continue for Abdulla. On May 5, just a day before the anniversary of the killing of journalist Osman, which Abdulla and other journalists were planning to commemorate, Abdullah said messages poured in from what she claims were KDP online trolls.
“The KDP sent me messages using aliases on Facebook on May 5. They said, ‘You have no principles. Your future will be like that of Sardasht Osman,’” referring to Osman’s assassination, she recalled.
Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish civil society activist and journalist, explained some of the dynamics that lately have fueled the repressive and violent policies toward critical journalists in the Kurdistan Region.
When IS exploded onto the scene in 2014 with its sweeping takeover of large parts of Iraq, American priorities for its support in Iraq changed.
“When IS came, politics got even worse,” Chomani said. “The Americans put [fighting] IS as the priority over everything else, and they stopped putting emphasis on development of civil society.”
Chomani believes this unconditional American support for Kurdish political elites and the peshmerga forces in the name of fighting IS set the stage for Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, to extend his presidential term, already formally extended, past its expiration in August 2015.
Despite this and Barzani’s suspension of the Kurdistan parliament in the fall of 2015, Chomani said that US policymakers have continued their support for the Kurdish leader uncritically.
“The main threat is that the US has given support, arms and financial backing to fight IS. But as a result, the KDP and PUK have become so strong that they can crack down on any dissent,” Chomani said. He added, “US generals are coming to visit Kurdistan and praising its leaders and society. It gives KDP leaders this idea that they can stay forever because they think, ‘Economic interests are with us, and we are fighting IS together with the US.’”
Justin Shilad, a Middle East and North Africa research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, seemed to agree: “On a broader regional level, I would say that unconditional US military support does generally have the effect of indirectly contributing to a crackdown on local press when there is an implicit message that US military aid is not tied to or conditional upon respect for human rights,” he wrote to Al-Monitor in an email.
On top of this, Shilad added that the two-party monopoly on media in Kurdistan is creating an atmosphere of hostility to nonparty-affiliated journalists: “The challenge to independent journalists in the region is chiefly due to the parties controlling the region. … Independent news outlets not affiliated with either the PUK or the KDP, thus run the risk of politically motivated charges.”
As for Chomani, he has lately been the target of vilification from Kurdish authorities, this time for opposing the recently announced independence referendum for the Kurdistan Region.
In late June, he said, “Colleagues and I began a ‘No to the Referendum’ campaign,” he told Al-Monitor, referring to the Kurdistan independence referendum. “We’ve just demanded that the [now suspended] parliament should be reactivated before the referendum. The KDP responded to us through its shadow media, saying we are traitors and Iranian spies. They said I work with [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki. The KDP said those who don’t support the referendum should get out of Kurdistan.”