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 Anti-democratic establishment suppresses freedom of expression in Kurdistan-Iraq

 Opinion — Analysis
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


Anti-democratic establishment suppresses freedom of expression in Kurdistan-Iraq  11.1.2011  
By Dr. Kirmanj Gundi -

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January 11, 2011

After the creation of a “Safe Haven” in some parts of Kurdistan in Iraq in 1992, and the subsequent establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) administration, the people of Kurdistan embraced the Kurdish political parties that at times had disturbing pasts. People of Kurdistan perceived this embracement as “national reconciliation” and the best option for their national interests.

When the KRG was withering under two sanctions (the UN sanction against Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s blockade against Kurdistan region) in 1990s, people in the KRG controlled areas, particularly doctors, teachers, professors, and other employees continued to provide their civic services gratis to assist the Kurdish administration in running its affairs. They were anticipating a more tranquil and prosperous future in which democracy and freedom of expression would flourish—a future in which human dignity would be protected.               

Dr. Kirmanj Gundi is a professor of Educational Administration and Leadership at Tennessee State University
Before long, the dream for a democratic society drifted away before the eyes of the world. The people of Kurdistan found themselves trapped again—this time not by Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime, but rather by an undemocratic Kurdish administration. The two main political factions, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), soon dominated every aspect of life. They controlled presidency, prime ministership, parliament, police, security, judiciary, media, and other compartments of the KRG government.

However, in the wake of this development in Kurdistan, unprecedented independent media outlets such as newspapers, blogs, and digital media/websites came into existence. These independent and free outlets have been very active in promoting democracy and scrutinizing government policies and behavior towards people. Soon, it was realized that a free press and freedom of speech was not going to be tolerated by the KRG establishment, especially by the KDP leadership. Occasionally, independent journalists were warned by the KDP officials. Sometimes, the KDP president, Mr. Massoud Barzani himself reminded independent journalists that their activities could not be tolerated. A handful of journalists resisted the KDP pressure and continued their work in support of freedom of expression,
www.ekurd.netnotably Soran Mama Hama, a young journalist from Kirkuk. Soran published an article about Barzani family in Lvin Magazine; soon after that, he was murdered in execution style right before his house. Although, all fingers were pointed at the KDP leadership for Soran’s murder, the KDP leadership could evade any thorough investigation of the murder since they could manipulate the situation through their influence over mainstream media and the police/legal system. In other cases of journalistic coverage, some journalists were severely beaten—others harassed by the KDP forces—some fled the country such as Mr. Halgurd Samad of Lvin Magazine.

Further, KDP’s hysterical and hostile behavior against a free press increased. Independent newspaper companies including Lvin Magazine, Awene, and Hawlati newspapers found themselves under constant scrutiny and harassment for promoting freedom and democratic principles. Their editor-in-chiefs were threatened for publishing “opposing views” about Mr. Barzani or members of his family.

The KDP’s attitudes towards a free and independent press contradict their “democratic” slogans. Occasionally, Mr. Massoud Barzani was quoted saying, “Kurdish people are my brothers and sisters.” But, when a young journalist, Sardashat Osman, wrote his famous article, “I am in love with the daughter of President Massoud Barzani” he was not treated as a young “irresponsible” brother who, perhaps needed some admonishment. But rather, it is widely believed that the KDP’s security forces kidnapped Sardasht from Hawlęr (Erbil) and took him to Mosul, where they ended his young life with two bullets in his mouth. This was a message the Barzani family wanted to send to Sardasht’s colleagues, “Do not open your mouth about the Barzani family.” This hideous crime shook the conscience of people inside Kurdistan and abroad. People were affronted, mainly by the arrogance displayed by the Barzani leadership. First, they issued a denial, and then they accused Sardasht of being a conspirator and collaborator with radical Islamists.

The reaction people showed made it clear to the KDP and Barzani family that they would not stand by quietly while free voices are silenced. People’s message was stronger than the message the Barzani family wanted to send to them through “bullets” in Sardasht’s mouth. The free and vocal press remains as loud as before. The people of Kurdistan have shown no sign that they would allow the culture of Saddam’s tyrannical regime to be replaced by Barzani’s undemocratic establishment without strong dissent. The Barzani family must be cognizant of the fact that people under their rule, like any other society, live in the information age in which communication is instant and information can be exchanged in the matter of seconds. The people of Kurdistan sacrificed loads of blood to achieve this freedom, and they are not willing to relinquish it. This is a new reality and the Barzani family must accept it.

Furthermore, once the Barzani leadership knew they could not frighten people by murdering their free voices, they turned to exploiting the judiciary establishment, which is another KDP controlled entity, particularly in Hewlęr and Duhok. The KDP leadership was determined to go after any journalist/person or newspaper/magazine that might print columns not welcomed by them. Thus, the Barzani leadership using so-called legal methods brought several dozens of legal suits against Lvin, Hawlati, Awene, and others. According to the Kurdistan Journalist Syndicate, between July 1, 2010 and December 31, 2010, 60 suits were brought against independent journalists and media outlets demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars. The KDP’s intention has been to mount enough monetary pressure on the free media to stop criticizing Mr. Barzani or members of his family.

In addition, the actions of the KDP leadership have already set a modus operandi that indicates that the future of Kurdistan may not enjoy democracy and prosperity under the Barzani high-handed leadership. In one of his speeches before the election in July 2009, Mr. Barzani stated, “The KDP has rights over people.” This statement appears to suggest that his KDP party has legal and political rights that surpass the rights of individual citizens of Kurdistan. This psycho-political view could be very threatening to the nascent democracy in Kurdistan. Mr. Barzani’s actions speak louder than his mouthing words of democracy. His behavior, in recent years, has gone against every democratic principle; and could imperil the concept of a democratic and peaceful future for the people of Kurdistan.

Kirmanj Gundi is a professor at the Department of Educational Administration and Leadership at Tennessee State University. You may visit Gundi's blog at

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  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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