Iraqi Kurdistan: Protests Suppressed, Journalists Arrested, and the US Turns a Blind Eye
Recent students' protests in Iraq's Kurdistan Region and how security forces handled them have brought to light the issue of freedoms in the region and the United States turning a blind eye to them.
Freedom of the press in Iraq’s Kurdistan region is under an increasing threat. The Region’s authorities make use of any opportunity to threaten and assault journalists, human rights activists, and demonstrators, not to mention the arbitrary arrest and detention campaigns, which aim to silence and terrorize them, especially when they speak out or criticize the government’s performance.
The latest example of this conduct, whereby freedoms are attacked, is the recent demonstrations that took place in the city of Sulaymaniyah, in which the participants protested the suspension of their financial grants and the lack of services in the academic departments. These demonstrations then spread out to other areas in the region, where the security forces arrested and beat up a number of journalists and activists, in addition to driving them away from the scene in a bid to prevent them from telling the story of what is going on, especially the assaults on protesting students demanding their rights.
The Metro Center for Defending the Rights of Journalists in Iraq documented that security forces in all cities of Iraqi Kurdistan prevented Thursday press personnel from approaching student protest gatherings. At the same time, human rights observatories documented arrest campaigns against journalists and media professionals while covering the events. Consequently, organizers decided to suspend the protests over escalation.
The recent events of Sulaymaniyah considerably depicted the security forces’ attacks on press personnel in Mawlawi Street and al-Saray City Center, as well as the arrest of 4 journalists, who were later released after direct intervention from the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, Qubad Talabani.
Since yesterday, at least four journalists who were covering the protests have been detained in Sulaimani. The four are:— Kurdistan Watch (@KurdistanWatch) November 25, 2021
Barham Latif- Rojnews
Birwa Assad - Rojnews
Abbas Muhammed - Al-Abghdadiya TV
Razan Majid - Al-Ashraq TV pic.twitter.com/Z7GO9BVFbW
Footage published by the Kurdistan Watch page documented a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party attacking a group of journalists interviewing protesters and MPs. He was filmed yelling,
"I will beat you to death ... you are not students ... whoever wants to do anything, I will beat you to death.”
Activists considered that this behavior illustrated the mentality of the authorities with regards to the press and freedom of expression.
Erbil: a KDP member attacks protesters and journalists in the presence of members of parliament.— Kurdistan Watch (@KurdistanWatch) November 25, 2021
"I will beat you to death..you are not students..whoever wants to do anything, I will beat you to death.." pic.twitter.com/iJIwaLPNH3
Some journalists and activists in Iraq’s Kurdistan region say they got used to such threats and attacks. In this context, Kurdish and international human rights organizations have documented, for more than 10 years, these violations of the freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the region.
An annual report by the Metro Center for Defending the Rights of Journalists, released in January 2021, discusses freedoms in 2020 and documents the following:
- 385 violations against 291 journalists in the Kurdistan region of Iraq
- The arrest or detention of 74 journalists without a court order
- Sexual harassment against 8 female journalists
In the same context, on January 7, 2021, the Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate issued its annual 2020 report, which documented the following:
• More than 138 cases of media rights violations in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, including 47 media outlets and 315 organizations and journalists
• 47 media coverage bans on 104 journalists
• 32 cases of harassment and threats against 88 journalists.
• 8 cases of assault on 15 journalists
Violations of journalists' rights exacerbate
The annual 2020 report issued by Peace and Freedom, a non-governmental organization based in Iraq, indicates that human rights violations in Kurdistan increased by 133% in 2020 compared to 2019. The violations, according to the organization, include: preventing protests, detaining journalists and activists, shutting down media outlets, and killing protesters.
Reporters Without Borders says the attacks on journalists and activists are committed by the security forces of the two most important political parties; The Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani, who together control dozens of media outlets in the region.
In the meantime, most independent newspapers issue printed versions only weekly or biweekly, so citizens rely on online platforms to get their news. By making a swift comparison, it becomes clear, according to Reporters Without Borders, that the Internet allows citizens to engage in debates and discussions deeper than what traditional press allows.
Journalist Sardasht Osman assassination
Over the past ten years, there were documentations of hundreds of attacks on journalists and activists who have paid dearly for their freedom of expression, but the assassination of Sardasht Osman was the most prominent and symbolic case.
Journalist and university student Sardasht Othman, 23, was completing his last year of English language studies when he was kidnapped on May 4, 2010, at the gate of Salahaddin University in Erbil.
Othman was a freelance writer who published numerous articles in independent media outlets, including newspapers and websites. He repeatedly criticized the Kurdistan government in his articles, some of which he published under a pseudonym. In these articles, he spoke about corruption involving top government officials and members of the two main parties in the region. As a result, he received several threats.
Othman's fears intensified, and he even foresaw his death in one of his articles, saying: "I am not afraid of death under torture. Here I am waiting for an encounter with my killers. I am praying for the most tragic death there is so that it can match my tragic life."
Othman was kidnapped and forced into a vehicle, according to witnesses, and was found dead on a road two days later with two gunshot wounds to the head.
At the time, dozens of journalists issued a statement blaming the regional government for Othman’s death. On May 10, 2010, hundreds of university students rallied at the site of Othman's kidnapping and then tried to storm the regional parliament in protest of his murder.
Months later, government forces circulated a recorded confession by a man called Hisham Mahmoud Ismail, who claimed he was the driver of the vehicle that drove Othman to Mosul. Ismail, who identified himself as a member of Ansar al-Islam - a group linked to al-Qaeda - stated that Othman was killed because he failed to carry out an act, whose nature he did not specify, for the group. However, in a statement broadcast by local media outlets, the group denied its involvement in his killing.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other international human rights organizations criticized the recorded confession due to its lack of credibility and transparency. At the same time, the investigation enraged others. Members of Othman's family stated that government security forces threatened them after they objected to Othman's alleged association with a terrorist group.
In an interview for CPJ, Bashdar Othman, Sardasht Osman’s brother, said he had spoken openly about the government's involvement in his brother's murder and that he feared for his life as well, which he cited as the reason behind his fleeing from Kurdistan and headed to Europe. He also stressed that the government's investigation into his brother's murder was "fabricated". Othman also stressed that everything in the investigation, from A to Z, was fabricated and a lie, announcing that Sardasht’s case had become an issue of freedom.
Bakr to Al Mayadeen Net: Journalists’ arrests in Kurdistan but reflects the authority’s fear of the free press
In this context, independent Kurdish politician Amin Bakr told Al Mayadeen Net that "authority forces used violence against protesters in the recent demonstrations and carried out arrest campaigns against them, as well as against journalists who were just doing their job and covering the events."
Bakr added that the authority’s course of action is a "dictatorship approach" against journalists and opinion writers, stressing that this is evident in how they have taken control of the region's joints and forced their will onto it.
Speaking to Al Mayadeen Net, Bakr stressed that the freedom of the press and freedom of expression do exist in the region, only until they start posing a threat to the authority. “Whenever journalists, writers, and researchers criticize the authority, identify corruption lying therein, and pinpoint its failure in managing resources, its forces target them and tighten the noose around their necks," he said.
America supports the Region's politicians and turns a blind eye to their violations
Asked about his opinion on the US position from what is going on, especially in light of Washington’s support for the Region’s politicians, Bakr said that for a country that champions “democracy and respect for freedoms, it is not doing much with regard to this matter,” accusing it of not taking any measures to help the Kurds, at a time when European organizations who are lot less present in the region have done a lot more.
And on why this is the case, Amin Bakr explains that America only takes its political interests into consideration and acts accordingly, clarifying that it does not prioritize the people and their demands, but rather the authority that serves its interests in Iraq and the region.
Bakr also pointed out that all the ongoing events in Kurdistan but reflect the desperation of the people, which was reflected in the recent voter turnout.
He also touched upon the mass migration from Iraq’s Kurdistan Region due to their despair over the economic, administrative, and political situation, noting that more than 7,000 Kurds have migrated recently, and they are now stuck at the Belarusian border.