By Judit Neurink
This article was published on AKnews
It is looking more and more like a power struggle. The relationship between journalists and police in Iraqi Kurdistan is a difficult one. After hundreds of incidents involving journalists over the two last years, the main question now is: How to keep journalists safe?
The reasons for the incidents are many, as discussed during a meeting with Kurdish editors-in-chief in Sulaimaniyah, on February 15.
Some journalists feel they are a part of the political system, and do not realize their role as an informer to the people about what is happening in their country. They do not realize their power is in providing information, in a fair and unbiased way, so people can make their own choices.
Journalists in Kurdistan are often activists – not just in their work but also on the street. In some cases journalists are known to have thrown stones and shout slogans. They stopped being a member of the press and became an individual, as one of the participants in the meeting said. To the police, there was no difference between these journalists or other demonstrators.
I was sad that some journalists I respect very much, last year decided to become part of protest movements by holding speeches. That is not your job, I have tried to tell them, and it makes you appear to be onside with the demonstrators. Again, that is how the police saw them.
Part of the problem lies with the fractures inside the Kurdish press. Many journalists work for party media, so they are aware of the policy of their party, and of their role in the media that only gives people information the party thinks is fit to read. Or - to make it more complicated - what they feel the party thinks is fit. Many party journalists censor themselves, when in fact the party would allow much more freedom than they think.
The other group is made up of independent journalists and journalists working with opposition parties. For outsiders, they are seen as equal. They are all against the government, they write against it and in some cases act against it.
There is a long way to go to make a change here. But we can start by making journalists understand their role during demonstrations. I was joined by a number of respected Kurdish journalists and opinion-makers when I asked editors-in-chief to instruct their staff on how to behave during demonstrations.
The key points were: keep out of the way, do not mingle with protesters, report from the side-lines, make yourself visible by wearing a special PRESS vest, be visible in other ways and stay safe.
When we presented the editors-in-chief with special orange vests with the word PRESS on them, some participants in the meeting called this naive. As if the police would act differently when confronted with journalists in orange vests? They said it would be even more dangerous, as journalists would become more recognizable - making it even easier to attack, harass and arrest them.
Partly true, we found. The meeting was held in anticipation of the anniversary of the bloody unrest of February 17. Everybody was expecting new protests, a year after the start of demonstrations that cost many lives and lasted for months. So did the police, who were out in force to prevent protesters taking to the streets. And when hardly any came out, they started harassing and arresting the photographers who dared to take pictures.
Amongst those arrested was photographer Rahman Garib, also from the Metro Center to Defend Journalists, pictured in the very first orange vest I presented him with during the meeting. In total, around ten reporters were picked up. Most were released a couple of hours later, but some only after being threatened severely.
Why? These journalists were doing their job. There is no law in Kurdistan that prohibits reporters from taking photographs during demonstrations. The Press Law says that journalists have the right to collect information. Well, some do it by writing, some by filming and some by taking photographs.
I try to get this message across to young officers in the police - those that are out on the streets during demonstrations. In my lectures I try to get them to understand that police and journalists both serve the people. That it is also their responsibility to make sure journalists can do their work.
But they receive different instructions from their bosses, who still consider journalists the enemy. Who thinks, in this day and age of internet, you can still avoid pictures being taken during demonstrations, which are important moments in democracy when people speak out and should be heard. These bosses get their ideas from the parties they belong to, or from politicians they are close to.
Therefore journalists in Kurdistan will only be safe and able to do their work when politicians speak out for them. When the new government, which will be formed in the next weeks, defends the rights of the press and openly supports measures to improve press freedom and prevent censorship.
When it supports the idea that journalists can make themselves visible, like during demonstrations, and play their role as a reporter without becoming involved, they will be allowed to do their work.
I will be knocking on a lot of doors in the coming weeks to get this message across. But right now I knock on one door in particular: the door of the returning Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, who is forming his cabinet at the moment. I have heard him declare support for the press more than once, saying that without the free (international) press the Kurds would have been lost in 1991, and that for that reason he supports an independent press in Kurdistan.
Mr. Prime Minister, show us you meant it. Help us to keep the journalists in Kurdistan safe. Stop police harassing them, and beating them up. Join us in our campaign to improve the situation of the press in Kurdistan. It will enhance your name, in and outside of Kurdistan, where criticism about the harsh treatment of the press is growing.
But most importantly, it will help to give Kurdistan the press that it needs and deserves: a responsible press that serves the Kurdish people.
Judit Neurink is an independent Dutch journalist residing in Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.