ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq’s northern Kurdish enclave may be a haven of relative peace and serenity but independent journalists there say challenges to the political establishment are being met with intimidation and threats.
In the largely autonomous territory, streets are swept clean and people walk without fear -- a stark contrast to the concrete walls and barbed wire that have defined life for most Iraqis in more than five years of war.
Still, about 60 Kurdish journalists were killed, threatened, attacked, or taken to court in the first half of 2008, says the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Last month, Soran Mamahama, a 23-year-old writer for Livin magazine, published in the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniya, was gunned down outside his home in Kirkuk, a week after his report linking security officials to prostitution rings.
In the past few years, many other Kurdish journalists have been beaten, jailed, threatened with death or simply hassled by the authorities while doing their job.
“In Kurdistan there is no freedom for journalists. I have proof of that -- the most recent proof was Soran,” says Hemen Mamand, a young radio reporter in Arbil who wears a small likeness of Che Guevara around his neck.
“We don’t know who killed him, but we do know that the government didn’t care,” said Mamand, who himself was threatened when he wrote a story about an alleged case of corruption linked to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s powerful KDP party.
While the rest of Iraq was mired in chaotic, bloody civil strife following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Kurdish north aggressively promoted its image as “the other Iraq” -- a place of stability, prosperity and above all, security.
The last decade has seen a scrappy independent press emerge to challenge the region’s two dominant political parties. But that has coincided with a “marked deterioration in press freedom” and spates of attacks, said Joel Campagna, who headed a CPJ mission to Kurdistan last year.
“NO PROBLEMS HERE”
CPJ and Amnesty International have launched campaigns to draw attention to such events and pressure Kurdish authorities to hold those who are threatening journalists to account.
“The recent incidents have really stripped off the veneer and revealed it’s not much different than other parts of Iraq,” Campagna said.
Although violence has dropped sharply, Iraq remains the world’s most dangerous place for the press, with more than 130 journalists killed working there since 2003.
Many reporters in Kurdistan see themselves as most at risk when they report critically about Kurdish security forces, government officials or political parties.
They say Barzani’s KDP party, based in Arbil, and the PUK, its historic rival, controlled by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and based in Sulaimaniya, wield near-total control of their respective Kurdish domains.
“In Kurdistan, there isn’t really a political opposition. So the government thinks that journalists are the opposition,” said Rebin Rasul Esmail, who until 2004 was a senior editor for Hawlati, a leading independent newspaper.
In 2006, men tried to abduct his wife, fellow journalist Azhen Abdul Khaleq, off the street. The couple believed the attack was related to Abdul Khaleq’s reporting on officials’ attempts to sexually assault female journalists.
Kurdish officials categorically reject suggestions they strong-arm the press or look the other way when violence occurs.
They paint a picture of a feckless, ill-trained media that traffics in unsubstantiated reports and personal attacks.
“The problem, you know, with our journalists, they think they are free to say anything and do anything,” State Interior Minister Karim Sinjari said in an interview. “Somebody tells them something, and they make a story.”
Asked about attacks or intimidation of the press, Arbil Governor Nawzad Hadi Mawlood said only: “No problems here.”
Sinjari pledges to protect reporters and investigate crimes, but says he can do nothing if journalists fail to report them.
“NO RED LINES”
Reporters acknowledge the Kurdish media often fails to properly source reports or back up assertions. It’s also an open secret that many reporters are on government and party payrolls.
“Journalists are a big part of the problem,” the former editor Rasul Esmail said.
Others blame the government for starving the press of information, leaving reporters little choice but to cast about for leads or trust disgruntled insiders.
Kurdistan’s parliament may soon resume debate on a new press law some hope will encourage a more mature, thriving press.
An earlier version of the law laid down fines of up to $8,400 for reports about people’s private lives that “insult” them -- even if true -- or “stain common customs and morals.”
Facing a widespread outcry, President Barzani rejected the draft law.
A U.S. official in Arbil said the draft caused concern because it “could be used to stifle free expression.” “A free and independent press will make an important contribution to democratic development” in Kurdistan, he said.
Ahmed Mira, editor of Livin magazine, is awaiting the results of a probe into his colleague Mamahama’s death.
Mira is no stranger to intimidation. In 2007, he was seized from his home and thrown into solitary confinement after he wrote an article calling into question Talabani’s health. Talabani is in his 70s and had heart surgery this month.
Still, Mira promises his magazine will not be cowed.
“There are no red lines. There is no censorship for any subject published in Livin,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya; Editing by Catherine Evans