Kurdish Media Freedoms Still Under Threat
in Iraqi Kurdistan
By Mariwan Hama-Saeed - IWPR - Iraqi Kurdistan
of journalist and subsequent crackdown on press
freedom have raised serious questions about claim
that region is democratic model for rest of country.
On the morning of May 4, 2010, a group of gunmen
kidnapped a journalist and student in front of the
university of Salahadeen in Erbil, the capital of
The following day, the body of 23-year-old Sardasht
Osman was found in Mosul. A single bullet had torn
through his skull, and pictures of his corpse showed
signs of torture on his face and neck. He was the
first journalist to be assassinated in Iraqi
Kurdistan in at least two decades.
The news spread throughout Iraq’s Kurdish region
within hours, and sent shockwaves through the
community. Months before, Osman had written
satirical articles critical of the Kurdish
leadership, and other pieces in which he had
foretold his own death.
After the details of the case emerged – including
that he was
Mariwan Hama-Saeed is director of the Metro Centre
to Defend Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan.
kidnapped on a busy street during
rush hour - the public, journalists and civil
society organisations started pressing the
authorities to launch an investigation. People were
further moved by Sardasht’s death when they found
out that he had been threatened months before his
In late January, he published a prophetic online
article. “Over the past few days, they have for the
first time told me that my time is ticking; or as
they said, I ‘no longer have permission to breathe
in this city’ , ” he wrote. “But I care neither
about death nor about torture. I’m waiting … to meet
my killers. I just pray that they will give me a
tragic death that suits my tragic life.”
He did not identify who “they” were, and it is a
question that lingers today.
Since Iraqi Kurdistan obtained semi-autonomy from
the former Baath regime in 1991, nothing has
impacted press freedom and freedom of expression
more than Sardasht’s tragic murder.
Shortly after his body was found, demonstrations
were held in many parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad
and abroad calling for an independent investigation
into his kidnapping and killing.
Under pressure from local and international
organisations, Kurdistan region president Massoud
Barzani ordered an inquiry, but it was deeply
disappointing from the beginning. For example, the
authorities never revealed the identities of the
members of a committee investigating the case. And
after a four-month inquiry, the outcome shocked both
the public and advocates of press freedom.
According to its findings, released in a 430-word
statement, the committee claimed in September 2010
that Sardasht had links with Islamic extremist group
Ansar al-Islam and that the group murdered him after
he failed to carry out an unspecified task for them.
Ansar al-Islam denied the committee’s claim.
The explanation was deeply troubling and
implausible, particularly given that Sardasht was a
secularist who admired western philosophers and
never mentioned Islam in his writing.
The committee also claimed that they had arrested a
suspect in the case. Since then, there has not been
a public trial for any suspect, nor have there been
any updates about the case.
I do not think we will ever see justice for Sardasht.
For years, the Kurdish authorities have portrayed
Iraqi Kurdistan as “the Other Iraq” , where freedom
of the press is respected and democracy is on track.
Sardasht’s death and a subsequent crackdown on
freedoms have raised serious questions about the
claim that region is a democratic model for the rest
of the country.
His death occurred at a time when Kurdistan
witnessed the emergence of an opposition movement
that challenged the region’s two ruling parties.
Since then, the authorities have accused the
opposition of taking advantage of Sardasht’s murder
to mobilise the public against the ruling parties.
Sardasht’s death for the first time raised questions
about the limits and costs of freedom of expression
in Iraqi Kurdistan. In interviews that I conducted
with journalists following his death, the majority
stated that they were practicing self-censorship to
avoid possible retaliation from the authorities.
Since Sardasht’s death, press freedom and freedom of
expression have dramatically declined in the region.
Since his death, the Metro Centre to Defend
Journalists has documented more than 250 violations
against journalists in the region. On February 19 ,
2011, for instance, nearly 50 gunmen raided Nalia
radio and television,www.ekurd.neta
newly established satellite channel, and set the
three-storey building alight. A few weeks later,
gunmen stormed and vandalised an independent
community radio station in Kalar, Sulaimaniyah
Last year, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, one
of the two ruling parties, filed numerous defamation
lawsuits against opposition and independent media,
including a billion-dollar lawsuit against an
In December 2010, the Kurdistan parliament - where
the KDP and its ally the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan, PUK, hold the majority - passed a
controversial law to “regulate” demonstrations.
Under the law, officials have rejected many licenses
Nevertheless, pro-reform demonstrations in
Sulaimaniyah have grown and in recent months
thousands took to the streets to call for an end to
corruption and better services. But these protests
were silenced after a Kurdistan regional government
Security forces opened fire on protesters, arrested
organisers and banned unlicensed demonstrations..
There is no doubt that the freedom of the press and
expression in Iraqi Kurdistan are under threat, and
it seems that those calling for restrictions of
these rights have the upper hand.
The good news, however, is that the movement to push
for more freedoms – which began following the death
of Sardasht - has only grown bigger. It cannot be
ignored, and is unlikely to dissipate. While it may
take years or even decades, press freedom and
freedom of expression will ultimately prove
Mariwan Hama-Saeed is director of the Metro
Centre to Defend Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan . He
is an editor and online training coordinator for
Copyright ©, respective
author or news agency,
iwpr.net | IWPR Institute for War & Peace
expressed in this commentary are solely those of the