In the mid-1990s, Kurdistan was split politically as Erbil and Sulaymaniyah during the civil war came under the control of two parties with differing approaches to press freedom, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) respectively.
Erbil province, administered by the KDP and known as the Yellow Zone because of the colour of the party’s flag, was always seen as more conservative. Sulaymaniyah and the administrations of Karamian, the Green Zone, also a namesake of the party’s colour, encouraged freedom of expression to blossom.
But the number of activists and journalists who have disappeared or being killed in Sulaymaniyah province this year alone has raised alarm bells about freedom of expression in the traditionally more open of the two provinces.
On Friday, August 18, Mullah Saman Sankawi, the imam and preacher of the Chamchamal Mosque was attacked and wounded in front of his mosque. The cleric had been very critical of authorities in the region and opposes the KDP’s planned referendum on Kurdish independence, due to take place on September 25th this year.
"We are living in a zone where we often take pride that we have freedom of expression and that it is to a certain extent better than the Yellow Zone,” Mullah Saman told Niqash. ”But this only holds true as long as personal interests are not threatened. When they realize that their personal and party interests are at stake, they are not only ready to attack you, but also to kill you. This isn’t freedom or democracy."
The attack on Mullah Saman came just a few minutes before Friday prayers. The Asayesh, (the security forces) in the area confiscated the surveillance cameras at the front of the mosque. They reportedly later told Mullah Saman that they were not working.
“People's lives are in danger and the PUK is responsible for this situation. I don’t have any personal problems with anyone and I was only beaten because I attack the ruling party, speak about corruption, injustice and the starvation of people,” added Sankawi. “And I say no to the referendum.”
Neutrality at stake
Sulaymaniyah province has witnessed many demonstrations and major protests during the 26 years of rule by Kurdish parties. It is the cradle of dissent, as well as partisan and non-partisan media in Kurdistan.
But the Green Zone is in danger of turning red with the blood of journalists, activists and even politicians who do not toe the official line.
The number and horrific nature of recent attacks on dissenting voices, which activists and journalists say are linked to PUK affiliates and forces, confirm a worrying pattern. The attack on Mulla Saman was not the only incident. Successive events show that the incident is only part of systematic violations.
On August 8, the “No for Now” for the Referendum Movement was announced in Sulaymaniyah, demanding a postponement of the referendum scheduled for September 25.
After the announcement of the movement, pressure was exerted on its members. On August 20, Farhad Sinkawi a Kurdistan parliament member and a member of the No for Now for the Referendum Movement in Sulaymaniyah was kidnapped by unknown gunmen.
Fingers have been pointed at PUK officials. Security apparatuses declined to comment and remained silent.
Skeletons in the past
Over the past two years, many activists, journalists and critics of the ruling party have said that they have received threats of death and physical liquidation in areas under the control of the PUK.
While the number of cases alone this year shows a worrying pattern, the repression has historical roots.
Months after ending a 60-day protest by residents in Sulaymaniyah in April 2011, which led to the killing of 10 people and the injury of hundreds, in August of the same year gunmen attacked Asos Hardi, editor-in-chief and founder of the Awene newspaper in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Again, suspicions fell on PUK officials, as reported in the newspaper which he used to manage. No court has found anyone guilty.
In October 2013, gunmen in Sulaymaniyah shot and wounded Shaswar Abdul Wahid, the owner of the ART satellite station. PUK officials were again implicated but no suspects were arrested.
In December of the same year, gunmen killed journalist Kawa Karmiani at his home in the Kalar district, south of Sulaymaniyah. Most activists and journalists in the area accused a specific PUK official, who had previously threatened the journalist by phone. The conversation between the two was published. Again, a court did not sentence anyone.
In July this year, gunmen in the Qalat Daza town east of Sulaymaniyah shot a hail of bullets on cleric Ahmad Diri and killed him. The reasons were apparently related to politics but security forces said the incident was caused by “a social problem.”
There have been dozens of such incidents in areas controlled by the PUK. None were ever resolved and none of the officials accused of standing behind them has been brought to justice.
Stifling criticism in both zones
In the past, Sulaymaniyah represented a safe haven for journalists, critics, and activists fleeing threats in the traditionally more repressive Erbil province.
Hayman Abdul Khaleq, an activist, was kidnapped in Erbil by gunmen who later on shaved his head and his eyebrows and expelled him from the city in September 2016. He now lives in Sulaymaniyah. The province has seen its own share of repression against media figures.
Soran Mama Hamma, a journalist, was reportedly assassinated in Kirkuk in 2008 and in 2010, Sardasht Othman, a journalist, was killed in Erbil. In 2013 Kawa Karmiani, a journalist, was allegedly assassinated in Klar and in 2016, Wadat Hussein, a journalist, was killed in Dohuk. In November 2016, Hoshyar Ismail, a cleric, was, by many accounts, assassinated in Erbil and in July this year, Ahmad Diri, a cleric, was killed in Qalat Daza.
Ibrahim Abbas, who was a member of the KDP for 25 years, was beaten in July in the city of Erbil after publishing material critical of the party. He now receives death threats, he told Niqash.
Abbas believes the new leadership does not share the vision of a free press promoted by former leaders Nashirwan Mustafa and Jalal al-Talabani.
Jalal Talabani, PUK secretary-general, has been suffering from an illness since 2012, while Nashirwan Mustafa, general coordinator of the Change Movement, died in May 2017. Most commentators agree that these two key figures played a major role in expanding freedom of expression within areas controlled by the PUK.
Abbas says he was told by the USA that his life could be in danger if he remains in Sulaymaniyah. “But in Erbil I will be safe and no one will dare to kill me,” Abbas told Niqash.
Rahman Ghareeb, coordinator of the Metro Center, which documents and publishes violations against journalists every six months, said that his center does not count violations according to provinces and areas, but rather on a national basis.
“We have never said that Sulaymaniyah is better than Erbil. There is a group of people inside parties in Sulaymaniyah and influential persons in the government who will do the same things they did in the mountains if they are given the opportunity to do so,” Ghareeb told Niqash.
The coordinator of Metro Center said that the conditions of the press in the region in general are poor and this is due to the mentality of those in power.
Security services avoid commenting on such sensitive cases, merely saying that the files are in the courts. But the courts are yet to resolve any.
The borders that were drawn between the two conflicting powers during the civil war are fading away and the two fronts have become identical, leaving no place for protest in Kurdistan.