What’s the Difference between Barzani and Saddam?

If a free press is a cornerstone for democracy, Iraqi Kurdistan is the least democratic region in Iraq. After the New York Times embarrassed the region by reporting on its wide-scale, sanctions-busting trade with Iran, Masud Barzani’s political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, has retaliated with a $1 billion lawsuit against an opposition newspaper that had reported on ruling-party complicity in the trade.

The Metro Center to Defend Journalists has issued a press release:

Sulaimaniyah, Iraq August 2, 2010:  The Kurdistan Democratic Party has filed a one billion US dollar defamation lawsuit, the largest in Iraqi history, against an opposition newspaper, the Metro Center to Defend Journalists said today.

On July 20, Rozhnama, a newspaper affiliated with the main opposition group Change, published a report about illegal oil trade in Iraqi Kurdistan. The story included claims that the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, have made millions of dollars from oil smuggling.

Fazil Mirani, KDP politburo secretary, filed a defamation lawsuit on July 25 demanding one billion US dollars in compensation from the newspaper. The plaintiff filed a separate lawsuit seeking travel ban on Nawshirwan Mustafa, publisher of Rozhnama and head of the Change movement; Azad Chalak, Rozhnama editor-in-chief; and Sirwan Rasheed, who wrote the article.

A court hearing for the travel ban has been scheduled for August 8 in Erbil.

“This is the biggest compensation demand by a plaintiff in the history of Iraqi journalism,” said the Metro Center to Defend Journalists. “We are very concerned about this lawsuit. We believe it sets a precedent that will negatively affect the press in the region and will have a chilling effect on journalists.”

Meanwhile, the murder of an independent newspaper’s journalist, allegedly by the security services run by Masud Barzani’s son Masrour, remains unsolved. This past week, Qubad Talabani’s aunt took advantage of British libel tourism to largely silence one of the most important English-language Kurdish news sites.

What can newspapers in the region write? They can praise the leader and his family members. What they cannot do: discuss corruption or nepotism, or ask about the fate of the perhaps 3,000 prisoners who disappeared on Barzani and Talabani’s orders during the 1994–1997 Kurdish civil war.

Now, as for the title question: What’s the difference between Barzani and Saddam?  Alas, the answer on the streets of Erbil and Sulaymani is, increasingly, “very little.”

Michael Rubin — Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East ...

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