Kurdish press fails to rise above fray
By Rebaz Mahmoud in Sulaimaniyah - IWPR
Hopes for independent reporting dashed as media
favours particular election candidates.
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', —
The media has emerged as a powerful and increasingly
partisan player in Iraqi Kurdistan’s elections,
extending its influence over politics at the expense
of its independence.
Parties have used the press to take pot-shots at
competitors or deny them exposure in the run-up to
the hard-fought election on Saturday, July 25 for
the Kurdistan region’s 111-seat parliament and the
Some party newspapers have been distributed free,
making it more difficult for the independent press
to compete. Television has been used as the primary
tool for reaching voters in the region’s three
provinces, running constant footage of party rallies
and leaders being greeted by jubilant crowds.
The trend is not new in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has
had a tiny independent press for years but it had a
resurgence after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s
raising hopes that it might challenge the party
Independent media suffered a blow in this election
when Nawshirwan Mustafa,
who broke away from the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan, PUK, to found a leading semi-independent
media company, Wisha, formed a list to compete in
the parliamentary elections. His Change coalition is
now considered the top opposition contender.
The unprecedented competitiveness of the
parliamentary election has created more partisan
coverage. At least two editors of top party
newspapers are running for parliament.
Independent journalists say they are disappointed by
the party-dominated independent media.
“People lose the right to choose ... they are always
hearing, watching and reading what the parties
want,” said Shwan Muhammed, editor-in-chief of the
Sulaimaniyah-based newspaper Awene.
Muhammed said his newspaper’s circulation has shrunk
by more than ten per cent since campaigning began.
He believes this is in large part due to several
parties distributing their newspapers for free.
The PUK and its former rival, the Kurdistan
Democratic Party, KDP, have dominated politics and
media in the region for decades. Their media ignores
stories that may not reflect well on the two parties
and have attacked competitors in the campaign.
Now allies running together on the Kurdistani list,
the two parties ran especially fierce media
campaigns against one another during a civil war in
Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s.
Television channels are the most expensive and
powerful medium for delivering news in Iraq. In
all television channels – both local and satellite –
have overt political affiliations. No public service
"The media undoubtedly are able to attract new
votes, especially television media,” said Nazhad
Aziz Surme, editor-in-chief of the KDP-backed Khabat
newspaper in Erbil. Surme is a Kurdistani list
The two ruling parties have the most technically
sophisticated and widely watched Kurdish television
stations. They have broadcast round-the-clock
elections coverage focused on their candidates for
weeks, including reading sections of the list’s
agenda in full. They are running together on the
Cameramen have skilfully avoided shots of rival
parties, broadcasting scenes of streets packed
solely with their coalition’s supporters. While this
is often the case in Erbil and Dohuk, where the
Kurdistani list dominates public campaigning,
supporters of many parties have taken to the streets
in the other main city of Sulaimaniyah.
Television stations loyal to the Kurdistani list and
Change have also whipped up their supporters by
repeatedly showing footage of one group taunting the
other. While election fever is running high, the
campaign season has remained largely peaceful.
Iraq’s election commission rules bar campaigning 48
hours ahead of elections and partisan television
stations and newspapers have responded to the
deadline by running images and footage without
commentary. Typical images show early voting or
party supporters dancing with the flag of their
Meanwhile, Mustafa’s Wisha media company continues
to concentrate heavily on corruption inside the
government and parties.
While the KDP and PUK media have openly backed the
Kurdistani list – including running the list’s
slogans on the masthead of a party newspaper – Wisha
has primarily run negative stories to discredit its
chief competitor in the elections.
Wisha rarely broadcasts or prints news stories from
its competitors and rarely runs responses from the
But Adnan Osman, editor-in-chief of Wisha’s Rozhnama
says Mustafa does not interfere with news coverage
and says the title will remain critical if Change
candidates are elected to parliament.
Osman, a former independent news editor who is now a
Change list candidate, says his newspaper’s coverage
and Change’s agenda are one and the same: to reveal
corruption and injustice.
“Of course the priority is for anything which would
be good for our list's campaign,” he said. “But in
the newspaper, we care about news that is most
important for the public."
The independent press has also been accused of bias
and sitting in the opposition camp, particularly
after independent newspapers took a stand against
the KRG’s constitution.
Surme said the non-party media “seem to be
non-partisan, but they are misleading the public".
Some citizens are also critical of the media, saying
they are tired of the lack of independence.
"We do not know which media to believe. They are not
impartial and they are fighting with each other,”
said Payam Abdulrazaq, an administrative assistant.
“Independent media are so small in number that they
cannot fight all the many partisan and wealthy
media. So voters stick to their [party’s] media."
Rebaz Mahmoud is an IWPR-trained journalist in
Sulaimaniyah. IWPR Iraq editor Tiare Rath
contributed to this report.
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