niqash | Pshtiwan Jamal | Erbil | 08.07.2010Anger among journalists in Kurdistan has once again bubbled to the surface. Independent and opposition journalists believe the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has “ignored and boycotted” them.
No independent or opposition journalists were invited to cover the return of KRG President, Masoud al-Barzani, when he returned from an official visit to Turkey, Germany, France and Austria.
The press conference, which was held in Erbil International Airport on 24 June, was attended by all the media outlets of the ruling parties in Kurdistan.
Journalists believe the officials are trying to conceal information and avoid serious, important and embarrassing questions.
The conference is just one of many events from which independent journalists feel they have been deliberately excluded.
The privately-owned Awene and Hawlat newspapers are already denied press releases and interviews with members of the two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). "This is why independent newspapers publish news released by leading members of the two parties without disclosing their names," said Aso Sarawi, a journalist for the weekly Awene political newspaper.
Paragraph 4 of Article VII of the Press Act, issued by the Kurdistan Parliament in 2007, stipulates that ‘journalists have the right to attend press conferences and public events and have the right to access information’.
Despite making several attempts to contact the Kurdistan Region's Presidential Bureau to find out why some media outlets are ignored in spite of the constitution, Niqash was unable to reach anyone from the office.
Angry journalists believe their questions are serious ones that could embarrass officials.
"Why should they put themselves in such an undesirable positions?" said Shakhwan Mahmoud, a freelancer working for the Awene newspaper.
"The difficulty involved in accessing information and our absence from such conferences makes it difficult for the people to know what is going on around them," Mahmoud explained.
The Centre for the Protection of Journalists’ Rights issued a statement condemning the exclusion of independent media from President Barzani’s press conference and the lack of access to information in general.
"According to information received by the center and complaints filed by independent journalists, it is evident that this conference was not the only one where independent journalists and media outlets affiliated with the opposition movements were banned from attending,” said Hokar Ghareeb, the centre’s founder. "The main reason for the ban is that independent journalists are blunt and officials do not like their questions."
Journalists complain also about an absence of information and the difficulties they find in trying to track it down. Among the areas they find it most difficult to find information on are those relating to party budgets, especially those of the two main parties. These have remained confidential since they assumed power in the region in 1991. Similarly, the region's revenues, its expenditures and other issues such as security, have also remained secrets not revealed to the people of the region.
Mariwan al-Mullah Hassan admits that independents and opposition journalists do get some invites.
“If it’s the inauguration of a new hospital or school, we will be the first guests to be invited. When it’s a political or economic topic, though, we will not get an official invitation and we won’t be allowed to go.”
Mariwan, a correspondent for the KNN TV station of the opposition Change Movement (Goran), says, "It is clear that they want to boycott us."
Ahmed Mira, the Editor in Chief of Livin, a bimonthly political newspaper, supports the statement issued by the Press Center and said that "for years our journals have not received any invitation to attend the press conferences of the presidency in Kurdistan Region."
"We are not the only ones targeted by this phenomenon," said Mira, whose magazine is strongly critical of the government.
"All independent media outlets that criticize the government are also boycotted." "If the law allows, the two parties, the PUK and KDP, would most probably have closed our offices and banned our media outlet."
Anwar Hussain, Secretary General of the Committee for the Defence of Journalists' Rights, said that the government, by boycotting these media outlets, denying them the right to attend press conferences, and hiding information from them, is violating the Kurdistan press law.
"This phenomenon has very negative impact on the press," said Anwar. "Independent newspapers have a big share of readers who usually do not read or watch news published or broadcasted by the media outlets associated with political parties."
Government officials claim that they operate under principles of transparency. All journalists in the region, they claim, are treated equally.
"It is in our interest to have journalists cover the events and press conferences on the government. Our doors are always open for them to come in," said Dr. Kawa Mahmoud, the official spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government.
He did add that “there is some secret information that should not be given to journalists. They should ask clear questions on what they want to know,” and promised that the Kurdish government wanted the public to know all information about the government that is of concern to citizens.
Mahmoud, however, was unable to give clarification on the President’s press conference but stressed that he did not distinguish between media outlets.
Kurdish journalists are prepared for a lengthy battle with their government. Shakhwan says his newspaper has only two chances.
"Either we quit our mission and work in other fields or we receive an acknowledgement from the government on the importance of independent media in the region."