Mountain of impunity looms over Kurdistan journalists, says CPJ

Report by the Committee to Protect Journalists:

Kawa Germyani, 1982-2013

Kawa Germyane, murdered December 2013

We are re-publishing here some extracts from the Committee to Protect Journalist’s (CPJ) comprehensive special report, released today and written by Namo Abdulla.


“Iraqi Kurdistan may seem calm compared with much of the Middle East, but the media are vulnerable whenever internal political tensions flare. Amid impunity for anti-press attacks, including murder and arson, journalists say they must self-censor on topics like religion, social inequality, and corruption associated with powerful officials…

“…While much of post-war Iraq was ravaged by car bombs, suicide attacks, and religious extremism, Kurdistan largely escaped such violence. The economy is booming, thanks largely to huge oil and natural gas reserves. However, below a surface that appears calm when compared with much of the Middle East, political tensions sometimes run high, and this is when the media are most vulnerable. Local journalists say Kurdistan is rife with nepotism and corruption; many Kurds accuse their leaders of using oil money to enrich themselves instead of building a vibrant democracy and economy for all. In smaller cities, such as Kalar and Halabja, people complain about a lack of basic services, such as paved roads, jobs, and electricity…”

About Kawa Germayane (murdered December 2013):

“… Twana Osman, manager of the independent television broadcaster NRT, said reporters can write about corruption, nepotism, and all sorts of illegal activities, but only in general terms. ‘You can say, for instance, [a particular government agency] is sunk in corruption,’ Osman said. ‘It’s fine. But once you come down and say the leader of that institution is corrupt, that’s when the problem starts.’ As a result, Osman said, news reports lack specifics and have no impact.

In this regard, Kawa Garmyane was an exception, his colleagues said. In one of the most tribal and rural regions of Kurdistan, fittingly referred to as Germyan, or the Hot Region, because of its unbearable summers, Garmyane exuded a rare bravery. His magazine, Rayel, didn’t shy away from alleging corruption by specific officials, even if they were as powerful as a military general like Sangawi. Colleagues say Garmyane enjoyed taking advantage of his writing skills to challenge authority.

‘There was something that made Kawa [Garmyane] stand out among his colleagues,’ said Danna Assad, an editor with independent weekly Awene, where Garmyane was also a contributor. ‘While other journalists were general in reporting corruption, he told us specifically who was corrupt. He named them, and, you know, that is a red line here.’”

Still no justice for Sardasht Osman (murdered April 2010):

“…Shortly after the murder, (President) Barzani said he appointed a committee to investigate the crime but did not identify the group’s members. There is little information available about whether the committee ever met or even existed. Five months later, however, security forces televised a taped confession of a man named Hisham Mahmoud Ismaeel, who said that he had been the driver of the minibus that carried Osman to Mosul. Identifying himself as a member of Ansar al-Islam, a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, Ismaeel said Osman was killed because he had failed to carry out some unspecified work for the Islamist group. But in a statement published in local media, Ansar al-Islam denied its involvement. Members of Osman’s family told reporters they were threatened by government forces after speaking out against the notion that Osman had ties to a terrorist group. Ismaeel is still in prison, according to security forces.

CPJ and other local and international rights groups criticized the inquiry for lacking credibility and transparency. It outraged others, too. In a newspaper column, Bachtyar Ali, a prominent Iraqi Kurdish novelist, called the finding a brazen lie. His colleagues said they had known Osman as a leftist, liberal, and secular man, not a religious fanatic.

Bashdar Osman told CPJ that he was so outspoken about government involvement in his brother’s murder that he feared for his own life and fled Kurdistan for Europe, and only recently returned to visit Kurdistan. In a phone interview with CPJ, he said he continues to believe that the government investigation into his brother’s death was fabricated. ‘Everything, from A to Z, was a lie and made up,’ he said. ‘His death changed our life forever. It changed many things in the lives of the people of Kurdistan, too. Sardasht’s issue has now become the issue of freedom.’ He said only an impartial inquiry led by members of international organizations could identify  ‘the real murderer’.”

Unresolved case of NRT – the 2011 burning down of the region’s only independent TV station:

“…The unresolved case of NRT has left journalists particularly disappointed about the effectiveness of the judiciary and law enforcement agencies in Kurdistan. It remains a mystery how someone could get away with burning down an entire television station in one of the safest, most guarded, and upscale residential areas of Sulaymaniyah. NRT is based in German Village, a newly built gated community where affluent expatriates can afford to live.

In August 2013, a CPJ researcher visited the television station for an update. NRT continues to exist as a powerful medium. The headquarters is renovated. Its reporters seem determined. The inner walls of the new offices are decked with pictures of the debris of what used to be their workplace.

But Twana Osman told CPJ that he has become completely disillusioned with Kurdistan’s whole system of governance.’Those who have burnt the station are part of a group that is bigger than the government,’ Osman said, adding that there was sufficient evidence available for an independent court to arrive at a conclusive result. ‘If the court is serious about it, if it were independent in the first place, we would easily be able to tell who the criminals are,’ he said.

CPJ asked Jalal Kareem, the deputy minister of interior, why the NRT attackers remain at large. His response included an implied acknowledgment that some people are above the law in Kurdistan: ‘[Osman] knows who burnt it down,’ Kareem said. ‘The court also knows who burnt it down.’ He suggested that the actual attackers might have left Iraq for a foreign country…

…In October 2013, while NRT’s attackers still remained at large, the television station itself became news again. Its owner, Shaswar Abdulwahid, was shot and wounded in Sulaymaniyah. He survived. But, again, the attackers committed their crime with impunity”.

 Harassment of Sherwan Sherwani (editor-in-chief of ‘Bashur’): 

“…Because of his journalistic work, Sherwani has been prosecuted multiple times. In 2013, he was sued for defamation by Bahzad Barzani, a nephew of the president, in connection with an article in Bashur alleging that armed forces loyal to the nephew operate a detention facility jailing dozens of political prisoners.

Sherwani told CPJ, ‘This is an illegal prison, where dozens of people have been tortured to death or have committed suicide.’

Sherwani said he learned of an arrest warrant against him only after neighbors notified him of a police raid on his home while he was away in December 2013. Bahzad Barzani denied allegations that he had sent forces to raid the journalist’s home and said the police merely implemented a court order to arrest him. Barzani’s lawyer, Sardar Raqib Najim, said the arrest warrant was issued in June 2013 but the police had failed to arrest Sherwani because of difficulty finding him.

In an interview with CPJ on December 20, 2013, Bahzad Barzani confirmed that he had filed the defamation lawsuit.

‘Sherwani has published some stuff about me in his magazine that has no basis,’ Bahzad Barzani said. ‘In the article, he has accused me of killing innocent people. He should come to the court and prove that I have killed people. If he lied, he should be held accountable for that. If he told the truth, then the court should deal with me as a murderer.’

On December 22, 2013, Sherwani appeared in court to testify and was once again released on bail of 1 million Iraqi dinars. The trial has been delayed indefinitely. Sherwani stands by his story and says he has three witnesses who have been subjected to torture in the alleged prison, but are fearful of retribution for testifying unless their identities are protected by the court.

Sherwani told CPJ that he no longer considers his home a safe place, as it could at any time be raided by security or police forces loyal to the KDP. ‘I’m always somewhere between Sulaymaniyah, Erbil, and Duhok,’ he said.”

What needs to be done?

Download the report for the recommendations in full. They include:

“To the Kurdish Regional Government:

  • Thoroughly investigate all unsolved attacks on journalists, including the murders of Sardasht Osman and Kawa Garmyane and the arson attack on Nalia Radio and Television (NRT), and hold to account all those responsible to the full extent of the law.
  • Ensure that the families of killed or disappeared journalists are able to seek the truth about the fate of their relatives without fear of reprisal.
  • Publicly disclose the findings of the committee appointed by the president to investigate the murder of Sardasht Osman and any other official inquiries into attacks on journalists.

To the international community

  • Bilateral and multilateral trade partners should specify freedom of the press in negotiations over trade and investment with the Kurdistan Regional Government”.

President Barzani’s response to this report:

“CPJ sought the government’s response to these criticisms and other findings of this report. The office of President Masoud Barzani did not respond to CPJ’s emailed questions”.

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