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October 3, 2008 5:48 pm
For three nights out of every 14, Ahmed Mira does not sleep at home. He no longer walks on the street either, nor does he drive his own car anywhere.
Such is the life of an independent magazine editor in Kurdistan, the northern Iraqi province where journalists say they are coming under increasing pressure not to write about government corruption.
“We are proud of not having red lines, of crossing the boundaries and touching the most sensitive issues,” says Mr Mira, editor of Lvin (“Movement”), a fortnightly magazine that has homed in on corrupt officials.
Such pride comes at a high price. One of Lvin’s reporters, 23-year-old Soran Mama Hama, was gunned down outside his home in Kirkuk in July, shortly after writing about police links to a prostitution ring. His picture now adorns every wall and door in the Lvin office.
“Soran received threatening messages for three months before he was killed,” says Mr Mira, who also receives such calls, almost daily. Now, he stays elsewhere immediately following publication to try to avoid becoming a target at home.
While democratic Kurdistan is often heralded as a role model for the rest of Iraq, the government – or more specifically, the two parties that run almost every facet of life in the semi-autonomous region – are regularly accused of shady practices.
Lvin, circulation 25,000, and independent Kurdish newspapers including Hawlati, Awene and Rozhnama are leading the charge. Much more so than the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has a lively independent press seeking to offer an alternative news diet.
“Our role is to bring about political change in this society,” Mr Mira says in his office in Suleimaniya.
“We will try to change as much as we can, including the two corrupt political parties who monopolise everything,” he says, referring to the Kurdistan Democratic party, which is headed by Masoud Barzani, the regional president, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq. Mr Mira says he is most proud of publishing stories about Mr Barzani’s official residence, which the magazine said was as secretive as an aircraft’s black box recorder, and another entitled “The Sick Man”, about Mr Talabani’s health.
The latter story led to Mr Mira spending 13 hours in prison, accused of being a traitor. Independent Kurdish papers say they are coming under increasing pressure not to write such “unpatriotic” stories. Mr Barzani this week told editors not to write about corruption generally but rather to report specific details of specific cases, and to have the documents to back up their claims, according to three editors at the meeting.
“We will go on reporting corruption cases and the games that the political parties play to try to silence us,” says Karam Rahim, editor of Hawlati, the biggest independent paper in Kurdistan, who says he told the president he would not desist.
Hawlati (“Citizen”), which reaches more than 50,000 people each week, has been sued 35 times over stories about corruption.
“We are working to make sure that corruption does not become a habit among our people, and we are working to improve our society so it becomes more open minded and modern,” Mr Rahim says.
American officials in Iraq are concerned about recent attempts to clamp down on the Kurdish press.
“There have been a number of instances in the past six months in which reporters have been harassed, detained, pressurised not to write about corruption,” says a senior US official in Baghdad. “Sometimes we really question the [regional government’s] commitment to a truly democratic Kurdistan.”
The government denies suggestions it is corrupt or undemocratic, and the president’s office refutes claims it is putting pressure on any media outlets.
“There is no official pressure,” says Fuad Hussein, the president’s chief of staff. “The president told the editors that it’s their right to publish about corruption but that when they accuse someone they should have proof.
“They should not make black into white,” Mr Hussein told the Financial Times. This was advice not pressure, he added.
Regardless, Judit Neurink, a Dutch journalist who runs the Independent Media Centre in Suleimaniya, training Kurdish journalists, says the non-state press is certainly “stirring things up”.
“Independent media are necessary in this country to open up a few more eyes to what is really happening,” Ms Neurink says, although she sometimes has difficulty convincing reporters of the difference between “freedom of the press” and fiction.
Mr Mira, for one, says he will not waver. “Yes, of course it is very difficult,” he shrugs, “but we must not bow to the pressure from the government.”
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