In Northern Iraq, Journalists Who Expose Government Corruption Can Pay a Deadly Price
The turnout for change over the weekend in Iraq's Kurdish elections highlights the critical role played by independent journalists. In the face of extraordinary efforts to silence them, these journalists have reported abuses within the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), implicating members of the two most powerful ruling parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and challenging their hegemony.
In the run-up to the vote, concerned citizens demonstrated on behalf of freedom of the press in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. They blamed the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) for failing to protect independent journalists from repeated threats, frivolous lawsuits, and criminal violence aimed at stifling all criticism.
Their protest took place on July 21, the anniversary of the murder of the young Iraqi investigative reporter Soran Mama Hama, who was gunned down last summer outside his home in a relatively quiet suburb of Kirkuk.
Just weeks before his murder, Mama Hama had published an article in the independent Kurdish language magazine Livin, which contained evidence of links between police and prostitution. His article featured a woman who runs a network of prostitutes; she estimated that there were over 200 houses of prostitution in the city of Kirkuk alone, with two to six girls to a house.
She explained to Mama Hama how she got started, "The checkpoints and visits to the police stations taught me this business." In exchange for women, she not only made money; she also secured the release of prisoners, the services of the civic registry office, and documents from the passport office.
Mama Hama reported that he had "managed to obtain the names of three police lieutenant colonels and colonels and other high ranking officers who are the prostitutes' customers," officials whose names he withheld from the article.
In a region in which most media outlets are tightly controlled by the two ruling parties, criticism is scarce. Whether print, TV or radio, most media in Northern Iraq do for the KDP and the PUK what Fox News Channel does for the Republican Party -- spin the news.
Unlike the party controlled media, independent journals like Hawllati (Citizen), Livin (Move) and Awene (Mirror), have exposed violations of human rights and corruption -- and they have suffered the consequences.
According to independent Iraqi journalist Kamal Chomani, "The KDP, PUK, and KRG put harsh pressure on independent media. They beat journalists in the center of Hawler [Irbil] and no one was caught. Everyone in Kurdistan knew that the KDP and the PUK were responsible for doing that." Another veteran independent journalist who wished not to be identified said, "It's like reporting during the time of the Bathists."
The murder of 23-year-old reporter Soran Mama Hama was considered by many to be the slaughter of an innocent. A month after his killing, supporters of a free press were heartened when Massoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of the KDP, made a visit to Kirkuk and promised to find the killers.
The fact that no one has yet been charged in the 12 months since his murder, has led some to suspect that Barzani has, in fact, found the murderers and that they reside in his own government.
In Iraq, the murders of journalists routinely go unsolved. The New York-based Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) reports that of the 139 Iraqi journalists killed since the U.S. invasion in March 2003, at least 79 died as the result of murder, and not one of those cases has been solved.
The CPJ maintains an "Impunity List" on its website that "spotlights countries where journalists are slain and killers go free." It calculates the number of unsolved murders of journalists in a country as a percent of the national population. For the second year, Iraq has topped that list. Its percentage is nearly double the rate of the next highest nation, Sierre Leone.
The United States has spent millions of its taxpayer dollars on lavish salaries for retired policemen from L.A. and Detroit to train Iraqis in the art of criminal investigation. It has doled out more to set up high tech forensic labs superior to those in some parts of the U.S. and hired the American technicians at salaries that one said "would pay off my mortgage in a year." Yet these murders go unsolved.
The judicial system is clearly too closely aligned with the ruling parties to hold them accountable. In fact, many government officials, pricked by the pens of independent journalists, use the courts to retaliate. They file politically motivated lawsuits against the independent press. Although a law passed in September 2008 was intended to secure some protection for journalists, frivolous lawsuits continue to make their way through the courts. Between January and April 2009, 50 lawsuits were filed against journalists in northern Iraq.
One editor was convicted of defamation for simply reprinting an article by American Middle East specialist Michael Rubin. Rubin criticized Kurdish leaders Barzani and Talabani for their history of human rights violations, their nepotism (Barzani appointed his nephew prime minister and his son head of intelligence), and the ways in which they have used government assets to enrich themselves, their family members, and fellow party members.
The most egregious of these suits was brought against Nabaz Goran, editor-in-chief of Jihan Magazine, by Chinar Sa'd, Minister of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. In April, 2009, Minister Sa'd demanded 1 billion Iraqi dinars ($848,000) for alleged damage to her reputation from an article critical of a two-month trip she took to London. Although the minister's staff had confirmed the trip and two other media outlets had covered the story, someone had to pay for the embarrassment, and so she took aim at Goran and his independent journal.
Retaliation is not new to Goran. Other officials whose actions Goran has criticized have filed their own lawsuits. In 2007, men in military uniforms kidnapped and beat him, insisting that he cease his criticism.
In 2008, Goran took on authorities for their failure to deliver dependable electrical power to the citizens of Kurdistan. Although the lights frequently go out on ordinary citizens, insisted Goran, they remain ablaze for 24 hours at the tomb of Ibrahim Ahmed, the father of Halo Ibrahim Ahmed, Iraqi President Jalal Talibani's brother-in-law.
Incensed at the slight to his father, Halo Ibrahim Ahmed wrote a letter threatening Goran: "If one day in my life is left," he said, "I will kill you as a dog with my own hands. I don't care the least: Publish this letter." And publish it Goran did.
Although Halo Ibrahim Ahmed later apologized for his intemperate letter, his threats were clear -- don't criticize anyone with important connections.
Such messages are delivered all too often to independent journalists. Ahmed Mira, the editor-in-chief of Livin, the journal Soran Mama Hawa was writing for when he was killed, has been personally threatened numerous times.
Rather than viewing an independent press as a sign of a thriving democracy, those in power, according to Mira, sometimes view criticism as a form of treason. He points to Barzani's statement at a meeting with journalists in Salahuddin in which the Kurdish leader "accused the free media of being a proxy for Turkey and Iran."
Democracy and the critical eye of an independent press go hand-in-hand. Although Thomas Jefferson certainly suffered from some biting criticism from journalists, he, nevertheless, insisted that a free press was "necessary to keep the waters pure." If Northern Iraq is to flourish and serve as the model for the rest of the country, its leaders, however painful they may find it, must listen to their critics and clean up their polluted waters.