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Storming Social Media:
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Facebook Is Protestors’ Last Resort

Maaz Farhan
Protests, sit-ins and other campaigns have not done much to solve Iraqi Kurdistan’s political problems. Critics of local government believe Facebook is one of their only chances to voice criticism and effect change.
The Facebook pages of Iraqi Kurdish leaders.
The Facebook pages of Iraqi Kurdish leaders.

When officials from Iraqi Kurdistan returned from Russia earlier in June they announced that they had signed new oil deals with the state-owned Russian company, Rosneft Oil. The prime minister of the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani, held a press conference after his return from Russia. During it he criticized what he calls the region’s “Facebook parties”, implying that the critics of the regional authorities do nothing but moan on social media.

Interestingly there was a group of people in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, parliament and military and acts something like a state within the Iraqi state, who were pleased that Barzani was angry – these were the people who regularly post critical comments on Facebook, underneath the statements made by the region’s officials. Finally, they believed, the Iraqi Kurdish politicians were listening to them, even if it was via Facebook.

Most of all, local people simply want their politicians to acknowledge their issues. The president of the region, Massoud Barzani, his nephew Nechirvan the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani, all use Facebook to make announcements. Every time they post something, hundreds of locals chime in with both praise and criticism. Some of them have taken it up as a way to protest, when nothing else has gotten results.

One of the best-known posters is a local going by the name of Hawkar – he would not give his full name because it is too dangerous to do so. He says he waits for officials to post comments and then offers his own opinion. All of his posts end with this line: “Could I borrow US$5,000 from you?”

“Writing on social media is a good way to spread awareness,” Hawkar wrote to NIQASH. “People may not feel the impact in the short run but in the long run it will make a difference.”

Hawkar has written hundreds of comments underneath officials’ posts but he has yet to receive a single response.

It is because the officials pay somebody else to administer their accounts for them, says Gharib Zardahali, another one of Kurdish social media’s very active users.

Zardahali often adds critical comments to Iraqi Kurdish officials’ pages and he also writes polemics on his own Facebook page. In one post, Zardahali wrote on Nechirvan Barzani’s page in Kurdish: “But you earn good money”. This is a slogan that has been used regularly during recent protests in Iraqi Kurdistan about the delay or unpaid salaries of civil servants like teachers and other municipal workers. In an area where people may be beaten by security forces or even their fellow citizens if they criticise regional rulers, this kind of commentary is dangerous.

Zardahali says he is continuously receiving threatening letters but he says he is not scared. He also says that he doesn’t think protests like his or others online, are as effective as protests out on the street.

Topics trend according to current events in Iraqi Kurdistan. For a long time, many people were posting comments or arguing about unpaid salaries. Most recently a medical misadventure that saw a young woman in Dohuk lose her hand was the subject of much anger and criticism. Facebook activists started an online campaign against the doctor who made the mistake but in the end the surgeon went unpunished.

Facebook is allowing people to voice opinions they don’t have any other outlets for, says Arslan Rahman, a local journalist, and for those opinions to reach officials, who may never have acknowledged this kind of critical talk before.

“The fact that the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan mentioned the critics on Facebook is an indication of how important social media’s role is in the popular protests,” Rahman argues. “Facebook is playing a bigger role here.”

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