Death threat highlights frailty of Iraqi-Kurdish press



 
A death threat by a prominent public figure is the latest in a series of attacks on press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan.
 
By MARIWAN HANA-SAEED (IWPR)
 
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R.R.

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 18, 2008 (IWPR) – A prominent Kurdish public figure has apologized after threatening to kill a journalist who he said insulted his late father in an article.

Halo Ibrahim Ahmed, a critic of the Kurdish political establishment, and the son of the late Ibrahim Ahmed, a famous 20th century Kurdish politician, wrote a letter to journalist Nabaz Goran on February 28 saying, "I will] kill you even if I have one day left of my life."

The outburst, which has received substantial coverage in the Kurdish press, was the latest in a wave of recent threats and attacks against journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It was prompted when Goran wrote an article published on the Kurdistan News website, criticizing the lack of electricity in the north. In the piece, he noted that Ibrahim Ahmed's tomb – on the outskirts of the city of Sulaimaniyah – is lit up around the clock.

Ahmed confirmed to IWPR that he wrote the letter, which was sent via email, and said he regretted it.

"It was 11.30 at night when I read his article," said Ahmed. "I was really upset that he had written about my father in an insulting way.

"I had a terrible reaction and I wrote those nasty words, which now I regret."

Harassment

In recent years, many Kurdish journalists have been arrested, beaten and harassed by security forces. Media representatives argue that powerful figures in the north do not respect the independent press, while Kurdish officials accuse local journalists of poor editorial standards and having little respect for cultural traditions.

In an earlier incident in April last year, Goran was abducted by five men wearing military uniforms in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. He said that he was taken to a place outside the city and beaten severely.

This attack was thought to be retaliation for the journalist breaking news that a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) media official had allegedly insulted Kurds during a speech. Goran wrote a series of articles about it and demonstrations against the official broke out across the region.

In another incident on January 29, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani sued the newspaper Hawlati for defamation and republishing allegedly fabricated information in a translated article by Michael Rubin, an American [neo-conservative] scholar. The charges were filed under article 433 Iraqi Penal Code, which was written under Saddam Hussein’s regime and criminalizes defamation.

The article, which was originally published by the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank, alleged that Talabani and Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani had amassed fortunes of $2 billion and $400 million respectively.

If convicted, Hawlati's editor-in-chief Abid Aref could face from six months to one year in prison.

"We are not worried about the trial," said Aref. "This is a part of a long fight for freedom of the press and democracy."

Aref said that Ahmed's recent comments in response to Goran's article were "an attack on freedom of expression and democracy in Kurdistan."

"If Nabaz Goran thinks that freedom of expression is to talk about my father's grave and get away with it, then he is dead wrong," Ahmed reportedly wrote in a letter to Hawlati, before publicly apologizing.

Goran said he is now planning to sue Ahmed for "terror and intimidation," a charge which carries a sentence of up to 15 years imprisonment under the Kurdistan Regional Government's laws.

"I will file a lawsuit against him, even though I believe that there is no law in this country that can convict people like him," he said.

Goran said he was disappointed that the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate – which is loyal to the KRG and the region's parties – had not condemned the threat.

"I have been contacted from France and the U.S. by journalists' organizations that want to follow up on this issue," said Goran, who is a member of the syndicate. "Unfortunately, the syndicate has not said anything."

Zirak Kamal, secretary of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, said that while his organization condemns threats against journalists, it could not investigate this incident because Goran had not filed an official complaint with the syndicate.

Goran said the threats will not discourage him from writing stories.

"I don't pay attention to [officials]," he said. "I'm just worried that this will become a model for other officials to imitate."

(Mariwan Hama-Saeed is IWPR Iraq editor.)



This article was republished with permission from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).