The Kurdish press is continuing to struggle for its independence despite the huge advances that have been made over recent years. Today the ties between publications and their sponsors are being increasingly questioned as some journalists seek to obtain greater rights of expression.
While the first Kurdish language publication - an independent newspaper Kurdistan - was launched in Cairo in 1898, it is only in recent years that the Kurdish press has seen real growth.
To date, the press has for the most part been affiliated with political parties.
Adnan Othman, editor in chief of the independent Roznama daily newspaper, established after the fall of Saddam Hussein, says that Kurdish journalism was “100 percent affiliated with political parties in the 1990s. It remained so for years and was used as a tool to improve the parties’ image.”
Today, however, new independent publications are sprouting across Kurdistan and providing a new source of information free, they say, of political pressure.
Abde Aref, editor in chief of Hawalati points to the launch of his paper in 2000 as the first independent newspaper in Kurdistan as a key turning point in the history of Kurdish journalism. Since that point many other independent newspapers and magazines have been established.
According to Ahmad Mira, editor of Lvin magazine, “the emergence of independent journalism has changed the ugly face of Kurdish journalism whose role was limited to glorifying the role of political parties and promoting their ideas.”
But, independent journalists say they are continuing to face political pressure that is limiting their freedom. Zirk Kamal, the head of the committee for the defence of journalists’ rights at the Kurdistan Journalists Union, says that sharp tensions exist between party affiliated and independent journalists.
Some journalists say corruption is the source of the problem. According to Suran Omar, an independent journalists and editor in chief of the Kurdistan News Site, “Kurdish authorities know that administrative corruption is on the rise… and this is why the authorities are afraid of independent journalists.”
But while independent journalist accuse politically-affiliated journalists of being party stooges defending corruption and malpractice, employees from political outlets make counter-claims saying that independent publications are also controlled by outside forces.
Aza Qaradaghi, a member of the central information office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), says that “there is not one single independent newspaper in Kurdistan,” saying that all publications are “supported by parties or political personalities who provide them with the necessary funding.” Qaradaghi says that at least political newspapers are clear regarding their allegiance, whereas “privately owned newspapers claim independence but one cannot believe them at all.”
Recently, a new media law was proposed by parliament that threatened to restrict freedom of expression, say critics. According to the draft law, issues related to national security and public sector are excluded from the guarantee of freedom of speech which is otherwise safe-guarded by the law.
As a result of pressure from journalists, Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region, refused to sign the law and it was returned to parliament for further discussion.
“The rejection of the law was a step towards putting an end to a dangerous pace which aimed at restricting journalistic freedom in Kurdistan,” said Shwan Muhammad, editor in chief of Awene.
Journalists now hope that the law will be amended to guarantee their independence, thus paving the way for more professional Kurdish journalism free of outside interference.
“The coming phase will witness important developments if a media law is issued in Kurdistan that guarantees freedom of opinion and expression,” said Abdul Aref, expressing his hopes for the new law.
For most observers, there is still a long way to go in cementing the gains recently achieved and making the Kurdish media sector more professional.
Kurdish media has “made huge paces since the 1991 uprising regarding quantity and quality of printing and high technology,” but “unfortunately all media outlets and newspapers, the independent as well as the party-owned ones, are still far below the standards we want to achieve,” said Fattah Zakhway, from the central information office at the Kurdistan Toilers’ Party.