Unexploded ordinance disposal? Police-station security guards? Alcohol salesman in Najaf? All are dangerous, but increasingly it seems being a journalist in Iraqi Kurdistan tops the list. Rather than fight the corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power which the region’s independent papers increasingly report, the political parties led by Iraqi Kurdistan president Masud Barzani and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani have increasingly targeted the region’s journalists in an as-yet failed attempt to intimidate the journalists into silence.
Attacks on journalists have been up sharply since the two Kurdish leaders’ alliance did poorly in the July 25 elections. Yesterday, the editor of Wirdbeen magazine survived a drive-by shooting near Tasluja (for those who have been to Iraqi Kurdistan, you know Tasluja. It’s the site of the large cement factory about ten miles from Sulaymani and on the road to Erbil). On October 29, the editor of the bimonthly Jehan was attacked and beaten as he left his office in Erbil. The Kurdish leadership has not investigated or brought to justice members of the security forces who kidnapped journalists, nor those who murdered journalists. Talabani and Barzani still use laws modeled on Saddam Hussein’s to harass and sue journalists who report truthful stories which the party bosses dislike.
It does not reflect well on Barham Salih, long favored across party lines in the United States for his competence and modernism, or on Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish representative in Washington who throws good parties, that not only do their promises of reform appear so far little more than rhetoric, but that the persecution of journalists (and of ordinary civil servants suspects of thought crimes) has increased since their accession to power. Nor does it reflect well on the Obama administration that human-rights practices in Iraqi Kurdistan now resemble those in neighboring Syria.
Kurds and the other peoples in Iraqi Kurdistan have achieved so much notwithstanding the obstacles put in their path by their government’s corruption. They deserve — and are ready for — democracy. Kurdish leaders talk about democracy. A free press is the backbone of democratic development. The Bush administration failed to pressure the Kurds to advance democracy; let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t make the same mistake. The Kurdish people cannot always be assumed to be natural U.S. allies if Washington continues to ignore the region’s increasing corruption, repression, and violence.