Regulating the Media in Kurdistan: Mission Impossible or Ignorable?

By Harem Karem & Kamal Chomani:

Kawa Germyani, 1982-2013

Kawa Germyani – independent journalist murdered in December 2013

In 1898 Miqdad Medhet Bedirxan launched the first Kurdish media outlet, a newspaper called Kurdistan. More than a century later the Kurdistan Region’s (KR) media is in chaos, lacking a clear structure, identity or mission while also being too parochial, politicised and subject to manipulation by political parties and businessmen. The Kurdish media cannot be separated from politics: it is a mirror of the KR’s politics. We shall here attempt to give a measured account of the ongoing conflicts between principled Kurdish media and the oligarchs of the KR, which largely reflects this chaos, followed by offering a viable solution.

Over the past decade, the KR, like rest of the world, has experienced a historical transformation of the public sphere onto the internet and we were caught up unprepared in the mass media revolution fever. We stumbled into an exponentially larger ecosystem where many loopholes became apparent. The absence of up-to-date laws, technological infrastructure or indeed an effective regulatory body has arguably confused, misinformed, and disillusioned the masses more than ever and created an atmosphere where it is almost impossible to distinguish between who is and isn’t telling the truth. In short, the media landscape has gone from disastrous to shambolic. Hence, in our opinion, there is currently no such thing as an objective or impartial media in the KR – whether funded or unfunded. Even though in the early 2000s there was a limited development of private/impartial media, by 2012 this trend was overwhelmed by the emerging mega-media companies that are funded and backed by KR’s oil-lords.

To make sense of it all, we shall briefly consider the recent history and divide the Kurdish media into the following groups:

1st Group: Oligarchs’ Mouthpieces

Although their roots can be traced back as far as the 1960s, the oligarchs’ media emerged (mainly) during the early 1990s civil war between local tribal warlords; they were variously employed as propaganda machines to attack each another. We remember vividly how their reports were full of foul language and accusations – pouring discredit on the media profession and promoting hatred and violence. The media became one of the dirtiest tools for fuelling the Kurdish civil war (‘Birakuji’ – brother killing brother) and legitimatizing the killings of Kurdish people.

This media group – whose core job is to favour the oligarchs and their political parties – has since expanded exponentially, with huge budgets at their disposal to broadcast with state-of-the-art technology including 24/7 HD news channels; perpetually inventing new methods to prolong their unethical campaign of mass deception, attacking their opponents and hiring foreign journalists to present a good image of their masters on the international stage. Alas, some of the foreign journalists who are working with these outlets are sometimes used as apologists to attack critics of the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government), particularly in relation to oil policies.

2nd Group: So-called Independents

These emerged in the early 2000s but mostly they proved ill-equipped for the drastic changes in the nature and practice of journalism brought about by the digital revolution. Some resorted to desperate measures to survive including seeking international funds while, to date, lacking appropriate training and resources to provide journalism of an acceptable standard. Others ended up seeking funds from the oligarchs and their party offshoots and, in return, they have become their shadow media.

3rd Group: Media Activists

From 2004 onwards, numerous digital outlets started to publish/broadcast news and opinions, initially by and for the diaspora Kurds, until locals joined in a few years later. Some operated under disguised identities when criticising the oligarchs’ abuse of power and public resources, while others freely exercised their right to protest.

Frequent clashes between the oligarchs and the second and third groups have occurred for most of the past decade, often prompting the oligarchs’ aggressive response and use of the state to supress independent journalism. As result, we have witnessed reactionary measures ranging from the murder, imprisonment and torture of journalists to the burning down of TV stations, jamming of TV and radio signals and sponsoring of cyberattacks. The oligarchs have put journalists at the mercy of their heavily politicised legal system, starved them financially or indeed denied them access to party and government events.

In the interests of balance we have spoken with the oligarchs and their close associates whenever we have had the opportunity, and they all tend to complain about the media’s ‘lack of professionalism’ and ‘unethical behaviour’ – examples given include the publishing of unverified stories, defamation, misappropriation of information, unjustified attribution of information to anonymous sources and careless approach to matters concerning national security.  On the other hand, we have also held many lengthy discussions with media producers and fellow journalists whose complaints are generally about being denied access to information, sanctioned, threatened, and lacking funds and proper resources to employ and train staff. Furthermore most Kurdish journalists and members of the public, and many politicians, complain that there are no national TV stations or major media outlets that cover Greater Kurdistan stories impartially.

A major contributory factor to this malaise is the failure of local universities to provide good quality journalism courses and research programmes or to introduce modern schemes such work placements, fieldwork or promote of a set of standards and principles for the younger generation of journalists to follow.

Proposed Solution

We have spent much time thinking through a viable solution to the current mess. We believe it lies in the design of an independent regulatory model that is both relevant to the nature and practice of journalism in KR and also compatible with the democratic international standards. An independent regulatory body is required to organise and regulate the media, protecting press freedoms and upholding the public interest. It should be set up and managed by the industry under the supervision of parliament. Its primary objective should be to regularly examine the culture, practice and ethics of the domestic media; provide guidelines, a code of conduct, training, apply sanctions, and provide pre-publication advice to the media industry. The body must be backed by legislation in order to create a means to ensure the regulation is independent and effective while protecting the media from interference. This idea has been received favourably by media producers, members of parliament and NGOs although the KRG has yet to officially support the project, aside from ‘off-the-record’ verbal approvals by senior members of the government.

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