The Corner

Kurdish Libel Tourism and Threats

Recently, there was been a flurry of conservative writers reporting positively on Iraqi Kurdistan after several were members of a KRG-supported trip to the region.

Alas, it now seems that the KRG used the conservative writers as cover for a crackdown on freedom of expression. After the conservatives left, Iraqi Kurdistan leader Masud Barzani spoke out again on the controversy that erupted after his security services allegedly kidnapped and murdered a 23-year-old student and journalist in revenge for a satirical poem criticizing Barzani’s corruption. Rather than promise justice (as he did in English), an Iraqi paper reported that, in Kurdish, he vowed “to chop off the black hands” of the protesters.

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has just published a letter enumerating current abuse of journalists cases in the region including one, unfortunately, which involves the current regional prime minister, Barham Salih, a friend to many in Washington.

Now, word comes from London that on May 27, Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed (Qubad Talabani’s mother’s sister), has retained one of Britain’s most expensive law firms and is taking KurdishMedia.com to court to try to shut it down after it criticized Jalal Talabani’s political party’s abuse of power. She is using the same British libel laws which Saudi officials use to silence critics of radical Islamism and Saudi financing of terrorism.

KurdishMedia is one of the main independent, English-language repositories of news about Kurds and Kurdistan. I do not always agree with it — and indeed have been criticized roundly and, in my view, unfairly by its editor for taking a hardline toward the PKK — but I respect its independent voice, which is sorely needed. I’m not in kindergarten, and rough-and-tumble criticism is part of public life. And, frankly, as NGOs across the political spectrum recognize and condemn the campaign against a free press launched by the families of Talabani and Barzani, it’s important that external repositories like KurdishMedia.com stay active and online, regardless of whom they anger.

The incident for which Jalal Talabani’s sister-in-law is suing does not involve KurdishMedia posting its own report, but rather its posting for just 26 hours a translation of a report in the Kurdish press speaking about a physical attack on a former Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official who had resigned from the party and joined the opposition. It does not appear that that report was malicious or even untrue, although the local office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan did not come out smelling like roses afterward. Shahnaz’s complaint was made months after the fact and appears motivated for the sole purpose of silencing non-party press.

Simply put, both Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani’s parties are waging an all-out campaign on the free press and free expression. American conservatives, progressives, retired generals, congressmen, or anyone invited over to Iraqi Kurdistan on a familiarization trip needs to be very careful that they are not used as cover during what appears increasingly to be a prolonged and violent campaign that belongs more in countries like Syria or Saudi Arabia than in a region like Iraqi Kurdistan. It a shame that British courts may allow themselves yet again to do an increasingly repressive government’s dirty work.

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 Quarterly.

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