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 Iraqi Kurdistan Govt KRG asks Human Rights Watch for constructive assistance instead of inflammatory criticism

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Iraqi Kurdistan Govt KRG asks Human Rights Watch for constructive assistance instead of inflammatory criticism  7.6.2011

June 7, 2011

ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has encouraged Human Rights Watch (HRW) to join its efforts, and those of many other human rights organizations in the region, to improve citizen’s rights and social progress.

In a letter to HRW’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth, the KRG responded to HRW’s 24 May article regarding freedom of press in the Kurdistan Region and asked the organization to corroborate the information in its statements with verifiable facts and to refrain from using inflammatory rhetoric.

Letter to Mr Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch
June 5, 2011

Dear Mr. Roth,                     

Kurdistan Regional Government KRG
I am writing this letter to you in regard to Human Rights Watch’s recently released statement, “Iraqi Kurdistan: Growing Effort to Silence Media,” published on 24 May 2011.

To begin with, allow me to reiterate the statement from my previous letter that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) appreciates the efforts of your organization in protecting and improving human rights in the Kurdistan Region as well as throughout the world.

However, we must take issue with some of the comments in the May 24th statement, and we feel that the lack of substantiation for some of your accusations undermines HRW’s reputation as one of the world's leading international human rights organizations.

In the second paragraph of this statement, you define Lvin magazine as “one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s leading independent publications.” However, their independence is questionable at best. Their source of funding is not clear, and as you can ascertain by simply reading through their English articles available on the web, they have a clear anti-ruling party bias. While no outlet can be entirely unbiased, I think it is fair to say that most ideologically “independent” outlets would be known for their willingness to recognize both positive and negative aspects of all of their respective political groups. Lvin does not do this. They clearly favor opposition politics and reserve only the most virulent criticism for the two ruling parties. In light of these realities, Lvin could perhaps reasonably be called a “privately owned” outlet, but certainly not an “independent” one.

The initial mischaracterization of Lvin as an “independent publication” is particularly misleading because the defamation lawsuit that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have brought against Lvin’s editor Mr. Ahmed Mira is the focal point of your entire article. The article criticizes the KDP for its legal actions toward Lvin and implies that these actions are evidence of the ruling parties’ intolerance of criticism from the media. However, the article fails to explicitly recognize that Lvin did not simply publish an opinion about the leaders of the ruling parties. Lvin published an article reporting as fact that two of the top political leaders in Iraq were directly ordering the murders of their political opponents, and the only evidence they offered was an anonymous source who has yet to come forward. While it may be difficult for citizens of the long established and stable countries of the West to imagine what damage an article like this can do to the credibility of a politician in the developing world, even in the West there are legal standards by which journalists and media outlets must abide.

It is hard to imagine that many people would believe it if a standard newspaper released an article that accused a major leader of the developed world of ordering the assassinations of his top political opponents. But what punitive measures are appropriate when the recent history and general situation of the region provides an environment where an unsubstantiated accusation like this inspires fear and rage in the hearts of many citizens?
The simple fact of the matter is that Lvin, as well as many of the other Kurdish media outlets, fail to meet the basic standards of reporting and investigative journalism. This fact has long been recognized by the KRG, and it has welcomed and encouraged the support of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), the Independent Kurdish Media Centre, and dozens of other international non-governmental organizations to help remedy this issue by providing training and other assistance.

Another major issue that we have with the May 24th article is with the quote from your Middle East Director, Ms. Sarah Leah Whitson. She is quoted as saying: “The Kurdistan Regional Government promised a new era of freedom for Iraqi Kurds, but it seems no more respectful of Kurdish rights to free speech than the government that preceded it.”

It is difficult to communicate how offensive this comparison is. It leads one to question whether HRW’s purpose is to actually help the human rights situation in the Kurdistan Region, or simply to offend its leadership and its people. The Iraqi government has itself recently recognized the Ba’ath Regime’s Anfal campaign against the Kurds as genocide, and numerous other international governments have recognized it as such. Saddam Hussein’s regime murdered hundreds of thousands of Kurdish men, women, and children. Well over a million people lost everything that they owned as the regime destroyed more than 4,500 towns and villages. Hundreds of mass graves have been exhumed giving undeniable evidence of the regime’s direct assault on civilians solely due to their ethnic and political associations. Hundreds of thousands of citizens within the Kurdistan Region still agonize over the loss of their husbands,www.ekurd.netwives, fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers, and thousands still physically suffer from the residual effects of the chemical weapons that were used on them as a part of this heinous campaign.

I must tell you that this comparison goes beyond a lack of professionalism. It is deeply insulting and indescribably offensive for someone who has not lived and suffered through this hell to make such a glib comparison in the international press.

Having clarified the significance of such a comparison, I do recognize that her comparison is particularly between the KRG and the Ba’ath regime’s attitude toward freedom of speech. However, in addition to the offensiveness of the comparison, it is exceptionally overstated. The Ba’ath regime employed an entire army of secret police and rewarded private informants for reporting on dissenters of the regime. Iraqi prisons were almost continually overflowing with political prisoners who were incarcerated for years, even decades, without ever being charged. People were executed for “crimes” as simple as having a recording of a nationalist song. As can be attested to by numerous major international organizations currently active in the Kurdistan Region, this is not even remotely similar to the situation today.

As I stated in my previous letter to you, the KRG does admit to some fault in dealing with the recent protests, and the Kurdistan Region still faces many difficult challenges. The region is a young, developing democracy, and it is a part of an even younger and more challenged federal democracy. Many of our people have lived in a situation of hardship for so long that acts of desperation may seem to them as only commonplace. In recognition of these realities, the KRG has asked for help from numerous major international organizations, and many of them have responded and are providing us with training and assistance.

EUJUSTLEX is carrying out extensive training for members of the penitentiary, judicial, and law enforcement communities. Their mission is to promote the rule of law through offering training programs that unite the members of these diverse communities so that they can learn to better cooperate and coordinate their implementation of the law. The United Kingdom’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy has created a program to enhance the Kurdistan Parliament’s training and capacity-building for MPs and parliamentary staff. And, the KRG has brought in the independent UK firm Price Waterhouse Coopers to advise them on strategies for good governance and transparency.

In addition to these efforts, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) has set up a regional office in Erbil to assist in a variety of advisory, training, and assistance capacities. Many other governmental and nongovernmental institutions are performing similar missions here from the International Committee of the Red Cross to small organizations that promote social welfare by digging wells and building or improving basic infrastructure.

In recognition of the need for a healthy democracy in this region, we recognize and wholeheartedly welcome unbiased, independent, non-government affiliated news outlets. We know that there are negative aspects of our government that need the light of public scrutiny to provide the impetus to correct them.

However, we also feel that it is a disservice to your credibility to simply print or reprint politically biased accounts of the situation here without corroborating their stories with hard evidence. Further, we feel that it is particularly unhelpful to frame such stories in an inflammatory manner.

We welcome and encourage HRW to contact reliable international organizations in the region to gain a better understanding of the current situation and the efforts that we are making to promote human rights.

Furthermore, we encourage your organization, as well as all other reputable human rights organizations, to come to the Kurdistan Region and assist us in promoting the rights and freedom of our people. We have always opened our doors to institutions such as yours, and we greatly appreciate the efforts of so many who are already laboring with us here.

I appreciate your consideration of these thoughts, and I hope that they will be successful in persuading your organization to take a more balanced perspective of our region and government in your future statements.


Falah Mustafa Bakir
Head of Department of Foreign Relations
Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraq

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