How did the media die in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle once called the media the “Fourth Estate of the Realm”. According to this principle, which is, almost two centuries later, still very relevant, the media acts– or at least has the ability to act– as a sort of watchdog of the other three powers in society; legislative, executive and judicial. The Kurdish media in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been acting for a long time as the Fourth Power, not aiming to oversee the other three powers but merely to justify the wrongdoings of the ruling elite and maintain the status quo. Hence, according to Carlyle’s definition, the Kurdish media has been dead for some time now.

Kurdish media has almost entirely been politicised and directly affiliated with political parties since the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) foundation in 1991. Prior to this date, the parties (The Kurdistan Democratic Party-KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan-PUK) used their minimal media outlets as a revolutionary platform in their insurgency against the Iraqi regime for decades. The main aims of the partisan media outlets after 1991 were to push forward the parties’ political agenda, hide their government and leaders’ wrongdoings from the public, and attack their rival parties, especially during the Kurdish civil wars in the mid-1990s. Thus, the media simply became a tool of mutual oppression and slander within the Kurdish political sphere.

The milestone in the history of Kurdish media was the birth of the first-ever Kurdish independent media, Hawlati, in November 2000. That weekly newspaper was split from the traditional Kurdish media, which arguably had a degree of independence from all political parties. Hawlati, along with Awene Weekly Newspaper and Lvin Magazine, served as a watchdog over the government and the ruling political parties for over a decade. All the aforementioned independent outlets are suitable for Carlyle’s categorisation of media power. However, thanks to direct funds from oil money, the partisan media made a comeback and sidelined the independent media outlets.

Even though local and international media outlets sometimes uncover scandals inside the Kurdistan Region, the courts have never been able to open legal investigations into these cases.

Starting in the 2010s, the ruling political parties poured millions of dollars into their media corporations and effectively put an end to the short-lived and poorly funded Kurdish independent outlets. This was done by offering huge salaries to vital independent journalists to work for partisan media, enabling these media to access the most advanced equipment, while the independent media could barely make ends meet. Additionally, most government and corporate advertising were allocated to the partisan media and ensuring an effective embargo was placed on any media outside of the control of the parties. This is in addition to the mismanagement of the independent media outlets and the lack of a vision to find a new way to reach a wider audience and survive. Eventually, this unfair and unbalanced competition between partisan and independent media soon ended in the “triumph” of the first and the vanishing of the latter.

Although the Kurdish media has never had the power to make even one minister resign, at some point, Kurdish independent and opposition media retained enough freedom to inform the public about the truth and not create an alternative and false narrative. On the contrary, since the takeover of the partisan media, the truth has been easily manipulated, and the ultimate aim has been to keep the public uninformed about the political reality.

A clear example of manufacturing the truth from the Kurdish media is the Kurdistan independence referendum in 2017 and its consequences. The partisan media – particularly the KDP-controlled Rudaw and Kurdistan24, presented this ill-timed referendum as a success and instead placed the blame for its consequences on the shoulders of one party and certain leaders within that party. A content analysis of 128 Rudaw articles during its news coverage of October 2017 events shows “how putting words in humanising and neutral terms helped them frame the events in a way that shows the KDP in a positive light.”

The partisan media has controlled public opinion and can sell anything as the truth and distort the original truth in a way that is difficult for the public to discern. To do so, apart from millions of dollars spent on the partisan media by the ruling parties, access to information and reach to the public is monopolised by the partisan media. And if a media outlet outside the partisan media goes too far by the standards of the ruling parties, they would either find a legal way to close the media or invade the building of the outlet and stop the broadcast forcibly; and even, in some cases, have 50 masked gunmen appear in front of the channel at midnight, burn down the building and equipment and disappear, as it happened in 2011 with the then independent channel, Nalia Radio and Television (NRT). This is in addition to the long history of murdering and jailing journalists by the Kurdish authorities towards those journalists who are challenging their power. In the last fifteen years, five journalists have been murdered due to their work, and none of the actual perpetrators had ever been brought to justice besides the arbitrary arrests and sentencing of journalists on trumped-up charges.

Nevertheless, the entire issue is not related to the media alone. Obviously, the media cannot change anything without cooperation from the other authorities, particularly the judiciary. Before controlling the media, the Kurdish ruling parties imposed absolute control over the courts allowing the parties to directly appoint the judges based on their political loyalty. The courts and judges, in turn, receive instructions from partisan officials, especially when it comes to sensitive issues such as journalism.

Therefore, even though local and international media outlets sometimes uncover scandals inside the Kurdistan Region, the courts have never been able to open legal investigations into these cases. For example, in 2014, local media outlets and lawmakers revealed that 404 women, mostly news anchors and journalists, were illegally retired as high-ranking military officers without ever serving. These women received a pension for working for the PUK partisan media outlets. In other words, they received money from the public fund and worked for the parties. Since the parties control the courts, despite the public outrage of this scandal, which the women involved never denied, the public prosecutor could not move the case into the court and reclaim the public funds. After almost a decade, many of these women still receive their pensions and appear on the media screens every evening.

Sometimes where local journalists are limited, international journalists instead reveal the corruption cases of the Kurdish leaders aboard. In a controversial case last year, American journalist Zack Kopplin alleged Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani of buying an $18.3 million property in the state of Miami while the region was going through a tough financial crisis. Despite rejecting the claims by the prime minister’s office, official documents from US institutions strongly supported the allegation. However, the judiciary refused to discuss the case and investigate whether those allegations were true or not; and, if true, where the funds for purchasing this property originated from.

The media is a monolithic entity at the moment in the Kurdistan Region, and society can only hear the official voice of the political parties, leaving no room for radical or critical voices. Nevertheless, several small online outlets are defying the odds thanks to funds from international organisations. However, these small voices are often lost among the big noise made by mainstream media. Without strong independent media that can genuinely act as a watchdog, any discussion around the democratisation of the Kurdistan Region would be severely limited.

The issue of the Kurdish media is multi-layered. On the one hand, the independent media and any voice outside the spectrum of the ruling parties have been disaffected in a long and well-planned process. On the other hand, the judiciary system and the security apparatuses revoke any attempt by the media to trespass on the many red lines drawn by the authorities. Hence, the Kurdish media cannot be expected to contribute to any change in the status quo in the Kurdistan Region for the better. In fact, the actual media that functions for the public good and observes the wrongdoings of the rulers in Kurdistan has been dead for some time, and it merely needs to be buried in peace.

Renwar Najm

Renwar Najm is a journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan. He is a master’s student of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Kent.

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