It appears there are but two ways to depict livelihood in Iraqi Kurdistan. Western journalists covering the area commonly invoke the region`s new luxury hotels and airports as symbols of its progress and prosperity. On the other hand, local journalists who document the corrupt deals behind the business boom report receiving death threats regularly and some have been murdered for their work.
Kawa Garmyani, a reporter for the weekly Awene and editor of Rayal Magazine, was shot and killed in front of his home in Kalar city on the night of 5 December 2013. He had covered corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and had reportedly filed several lawsuits after being threatened.
It had been widely reported by Kurdish media that Garmyani had been threatened by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member Mahmud Sangawi, who allegedly failed to appear for a court hearings concerning the incident. An audio file of an alleged telephone conversation between the murdered journalist, Kawa Germyani and Mahmoud Sangawi was uploaded on YouTube exposing an exchange where Sangawi appears to be threatening to kill the journalist. A Kalar Court issued an arrest warrant for Mahmoud Sangawi, the PUK`s politburo, who has been sued by the Garmyani family. Sangawi was arrested ahead of his appearance in court.
Garmyani`s death—along with the earlier murders of the journalists Soran Mama Hama and Sardasht Othman and the 2011 killing of demonstrators in Sulaimaniyah—raises serious questions about the KRG`s claim to be a pillar of democracy in the Middle East and a model for the rest of Iraq.
On the evening of 26 October 2013 in Sulaymaniya city, gunmen in a gray unlicensed BMW shot and wounded Shaswar Abdulwahid, hitting him in his right leg. Abdulwahid is the owner of Nalia Satellite TV, the first independent Kurdish satellite station in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. No investigations have been carried out to date.
Abdulwahid told Jadaliyya, "I am not a politician or a famous figure in politics in the KRG. I have no private connections with any politicians or political parties. The only reason that they wanted to kill me is my ownership of Nalia TV, as we have been facing many other terrible events in the past three years."
It was the second time that Nalia TV has been the target of attack by unknown assailants. In the first incident, which took place on 17 February 2011, Nalia`s facilities were set on fire. The attack occurred on the first day of protests against the KRG in Sulaimaniyah in which ten people were killed and five hundred people injured by security and Peshmerga (Kurdish armed forces).
Abdulwahid underscored that the attempt to kill him was actually an attempt to "silence his TV." He told Jadaliyya, "[t]he court has issued arrest papers for the [perpetrators], but they are still free [because] they may be above the government or rule [of law]." Wary of the KRG`s judiciary, Abdulwahid said he is working with lawyers on possibly finding an international venue for his case.
The damage to Nalia TV`s facilities was estimated at ten million dollars. Abdulwahid said he was promised compensation, but there has been no independent investigation or processing of any claims.
Freedom of the press in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has experienced dark times in the past. In July 2008, Soran Mama Hama, an independent Kurdish journalist, was shot and killed in Kirkuk. Two years later, in May 2010, another journalist, Sardasht Othman, was abducted and murdered in Erbil. Sardasht Othman was a journalist who wrote investigative pieces about corruption in the KRG’s ruling parties, in particular KDP and its tribal structure. Yet the case have not been adequately investigated.
According to documentation assembled by organizations defending freedom of the press in the Kurdistan region, in the past eleven months more than two hundred violations have been recorded, most of them during the campaign for the 21 September parliamentary elections.
Many have praised the KRG’s thriving democracy. But during the political unrest, the security apparatus treated journalists harshly. Kamaran Muhammad, spokesman for the Zar (Mouth) Group for Defending Freedom of Speech, questioned how democratic the region actually is, telling Jadaliyya that the KRG’s treatment of journalists should be judged on the security forces` response to them during coverage of riots, election campaigns, and sensitive issues.
In May 2013, Metro Center, an organization defending human rights and freedom of speech, criticized the KRG for forty recorded violations in just four months: "Believing in freedom of speech cannot be carried out only by words; [the] KRG should act.” The center recorded sixty-one more violations surrounding the September elections.
In an interview with Jadaliyya four days before Garmyani`s murder, Asos Hardi—general director of the Awene (Mirror) Co. for Publishing, founder of Hawllati (Citizen), the first Kurdish independent newspaper, and winner of the Gebran Tueni Award for the Defense of Press Freedom in the Middle East—expressed his anger at the situation facing journalists.
Hardi asserted, "[o]ur main problem is that there’s no guarantee for the freedom we have achieved in the KRG. Meanwhile, there are two administrations–KDP and PUK–on the ground, and that has made the KRG chaotic."
Hardi himself was attacked in August 2011 in Sulaimaniyah by a group of men. Five of the assailants were arrested, and three were sentenced to two years in jail. Commenting on the attack, Hardi said, "[m]any of the higher officials within the KRG and the two ruling parties have their own thugs. Unfortunately, these thugs attack journalists in the center of the cities. Most times, investigations go nowhere."
He further explained, that "[m]urdering journalists is still a possibility, and almost all independent, critical journalists feel unsafe. Writing on sensitive issues, which are red lines for journalists–like the corruption of the [top] officials in the KRG and the two ruling parties and their families, oil, some historical events and several other issues–may lead to the death of the writer."
While KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani is spending millions of dollars for advertisements in the international media depicting the KRG as "the other Iraq" and a "region of democracy and freedom of speech," Kurdish journalists feel unsafe in their own homes.
An independent journalist who works in Erbil relayed to Jadaliyya, "During Saddam Hussein`s dictatorial regime, people were not sure if they would come back [home] in the evening. Today, in a free Kurdistan, journalists go out, but they are not sure if they [will] come back safely." In a similar vein, Abdulwahid noted that freedom of the press in the KRG is allowed to the extent that "your media outlets are not critical enough to be a threat to the power. Once you cross the red lines, you are in danger."
One journalist summed up the current situation succinctly in saying that: "Kurdistan is no longer a safe place for a critical journalist." Although the Kurdistan region’s parliament passed Law 35 guaranteeing freedom of speech in 2007, journalists are concerned that it is not being enforced. So far, some ten journalists have fled the KRG and sought asylum in the United States and Europe.
On 5 January, in most of the cities in the Kurdistan region, as well as many European countries and Canada, Kurdish people protested to pressure the KRG to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice. In the cities of Slemani, Erbil, and Kalar, these protests have been larger and more sustained, often every week. Erbil`s protest on 5 January featured a large roving lorry that drove along a main street in the city center for seventeen kilometers. The lorry, named "the Red Caravan," carried the protesters who held up signs commemorating the victims of the attacks. They demanded KRG investigate the murders of journalists and put an end to violence.
Kurdish intellectuals, scholars, writers, and journalists fear setbacks to the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and democracy that they have gained by risking their lives. They are concerned that the KRG will become a region in which, in their leadership`s eyes, oil contracts and vast profit trump freedom and democracy.