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Fact And Friction:
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Biggest Fake News Stories Of 2016

Special Correspondent
So-called fake news isn’t just a problem in Europe and the US. It’s causing plenty of problems in Iraqi Kurdistan too. The NIQASH team in semi-autonomous northern region collected the best mistakes of 2016.
27.12.2016  |  Iraqi Kurdistan
A child wearing a plastic bag as a shirt with the number and name of international footballer, Lionel Messi, on it made headlines this year. But was he a Kurdish kid?
A child wearing a plastic bag as a shirt with the number and name of international footballer, Lionel Messi, on it made headlines this year. But was he a Kurdish kid?

The political leader who was on death’s door while Iraqi Kurdistan was in crisis. The littlest football fan who became an international celebrity. Threats issued by a cleric that sparked protests and a trial by social media for local men accused of a politician’s murder.

These were just some of the stories that Iraqi Kurdish media got badly wrong in 2016.

Iraqi Kurdish media make these mistakes for the same reason as journalists elsewhere make similar mistakes, says Ibrahim Saeed Fathulla, a lecturer at the University of Sulaymaniyah specialising in both local and international media. “Journalists can either be first with the news, or they can be professional and check the veracity of an item. Many of them choose to be first,” Fathulla explains.

There’s also the problem of partisan media in Iraqi Kurdistan where many outlets are still funded by political parties or individuals with their own agenda. “In some cases journalists know that videos or pictures have been manipulated or are false but they will still go ahead and publish because it serves their outlet’s ideology,” Fathulla says.

If there is one positive to have come out of the publication of stories that were later discredited, it is that local media outlets are starting to be more concerned about their own credibility. Following below are some the media mistakes that had the biggest impact on Iraqi Kurdistan over the past year. No doubt, they won’t be the last.


Political Leader On Death’s Door

In an odd case from September 2016, Iraqi Kurdish media published reports that the leader of the opposition party, the Change movement, had been hospitalized in Britain. Nawshirwan Mustafa, the head of the political party, was undergoing medical treatment, various sources said. This included some of the region’s largest and most professional news outlets. The reason many of them simply published the story with the picture was because it also appeared on the Facebook page belonging to Ali Hama Salih, one of the Change movement’s best known, most trusted MPs.

The picture of Nawshirwan Mustafa in hospital in the UK.


Opponents of the Change movement made much of this, implying that Mustafa had deserted Iraqi Kurdistan and gone for medical treatment in the UK at a time of political crisis in the region.

But in actual fact, the picture of Mustafa in hospital in the UK had been photoshopped. The original picture belongs is part of the press kit from the Royal Marsden hospital in London. Mustafa’s head had been photoshopped onto the body of another man in a hospital bed.

The reaction to the fake news was varied. Some outlets deleted the news and apologized for the mistake, others simply deleted it and said nothing further.

A source in Saleh’s office told NIQASH that the Change movement MP had taken the picture from the personal Facebook page belonging to one of Mustafa’s sons. He only later discovered the account had been hacked a few days earlier.



The original picture from Royal Marsden hospital in the UK.

Trial by Social Media

Late last month Hoshyar Ismail, an Iraqi Kurdish cleric and one of the senior members of the local political party, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, was gunned down outside his home in the city of Erbil. Just under a week after the murder, local security forces said they had arrested two locals in connection with the assassination. They noted that one of those arrested had the initials, S.S.

It has become standard procedure for journalists to try and find the individuals on social media once they have been named. In this instance, a man with the initials, S.S., was found living in the right neighbourhood. Kurdish media outlets lifted pictures from S.S.’ Facebook page and he started getting hate mail, over a thousand messages at last count.

It turned out that while media outlets had been close, they had also been wrong. S.S. was actually Sh.S., the twin brother of the arrested man.

The twin brother wrote an explanation on his page and declared that he would sue anyone who accused him of the crime. Iraqi Kurdish media outlets reacted in a similar way to the first case: Some took the news item off their pages or sites and apologized. Others didn’t.



The Biggest, Littlest Fan

At the beginning of the year, a small child wearing a plastic bag as a shirt with the number and name of international footballer, Lionel Messi, on it made headlines around Iraq and further afield.

Many people wanted to know who the little boy was, especially because many thought that the wealthy footballer, Messi, who plays for Spanish club FC Barcelona, might want to reward the child for being his biggest, little fan.

An Iraqi Kurdish TV station, K24, then claimed to have found the child. The TV station’s reporters said the picture of the boy had been taken several years earlier and that the boy, now slightly older, actually lived in the Iraqi Kurdish province of Dohuk. His name was Homan Ali Ahmad and he was now 10 years old, they said.

Most other Iraqi Kurdish media followed suit. However, it didn’t take long for the real “biggest fan” to be found by other researchers.

The boy in the picture was actually the son of a farmer in Afghanistan called Murtaza Ahmadi and his photo had been taken by his brother, in 2016.

The news item inspired so much interest that British broadcaster, the BBC, also debunked the Kurdish story. And as for young Ahmadi, he got the last laugh: He was last spotted on the pitch at a game with Messi.



A Kurdish reporter interviews the boy who was supposed to be Lionel Messi's biggest fan.

Last Year’s Threats

June this year marked the second anniversary of the beginning of Iraq’s security crisis, sparked when the extremist Islamic state group took control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In June this year many Iraqi Kurdish media outlets published a controversial video. It showed Rafi al-Rifai, a senior Sunni Muslim cleric, describing the IS group as being at the vanguard of a Sunni revolution in Iraq. Their ability to control cities like Mosul was a result of the Shiite Muslim government’s unfair treatment of local Sunni Muslims.

Many Iraqi Kurdish locals responded angrily to the video – after all, Iraqi Kurdish military were fighting the IS group and dying - and there was even talk of organizing a demonstration against al-Rifai, as a supporter of the IS group living in Erbil.

Eventually it became clear that the interview in which al-Rifai justifies the actions of the IS group was not recent; he had given it in June 2014, just after the extremists took Mosul over and when the situation arguably appeared rather different to some.


This report was prepared by Histyar Qader, Honar Hama Rasheed, Shalaw Mohammed and Salam Handani and edited by Kurdish Editor-in-Chief, Zanko Ahmad.