Saturday, April 12, 2008

Birth Pains of an Independent Press

It was only eight years ago that Iraqi Kurdistan saw the birth of its first independent newspaper, Hawlati. Despite numerous obstacles, the paper has managed to survive and thrive. Asos Hardi, who was part of the team that launched Hawlati, looks back at how the independent press in Iraqi Kurdistan came about.

Arab Press - By Asos Hardi

Throughout its existence, the Kurdish press has been one of revolution and resistance. The division of Kurdistan into different states, and the denial of the Kurdish identity by these states, forced all free voices that called for freedom and equality to either go underground and turn to covert resistance, or emigrate. The first Kurdish newspaper was created in Cairo in 1898 by a group of politicians that fled from the oppression of the Ottoman regime.

It is well known that resistance militancy imposes its own conditions on the press, turning it into a tool of revolution and liberation which aims primarily at contributing effectively to mobilizing all energies of the revolution and to guide the various segments of society towards the adoption of the militant resistance discourse. This was also the direction of the "free press" in Kurdistan during the years of resistance and armed struggle.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the popular uprising in 1991 and the liberation of a large part of the country from dictatorship was a real turning point for journalism, and the Iraqi Kurdish people in general. Since that date, Iraqi Kurdistan has become a de facto free region, governed by Kurdish parties (from here on Iraqi Kurdistan is referred to as Kurdistan).

At this time, the need for an enthusiastic and revolutionary discourse ceased to be a mandatory practice, and the birth of the press as we know it today turned into a necessity required by the transformation of the political and social situation of the Kurdish community. The objective conditions were quite helpful to this respect - in theory at least. We should, however, acknowledge that it was not an easy birth.

The Kurdish political movement was originally multilateral, containing different ideological and political currents ranging from the Marxist left to the nationalistic and Islamic right. However, Kurdish political parties failed to establish a system that would regulate political work in Kurdistan and guarantee the continuation of political pluralism and the peaceful transfer of power. The relative stability of the security situation collapsed soon, and the different political parties began fighting one another. That fight started in 1993 and reached its peak in 1994 when the two major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) became involved, pushing the Kurdish administration into two separate entities in 1996, which is still the situation today.

It would, however, be unfair to neglect the economic aspect and not mention the deteriorated economic situation of Kurdistan in those difficult years. Kurdistan was suffering from a multilateral economic embargo. As a part of Iraq, it was placed under international embargo after the first Gulf war, and in addition to that under the siege imposed by the Iraqi regime and the neighbouring countries that were seeking the collapse of the Kurdish situation politically and economically. It was difficult - if not impossible - to think of a free press in those circumstances. How could free press arise amid the harsh conditions of the fighting and economic stagnation?
That situation persisted until 1996, when Iraq accepted the UN Security Council resolution No. 986, known as "Oil for Food". The resolution became a clear turning point in economic and political terms: it played a prominent role in improving the economic situation, and also created some movement on the Iraqi market.

The second positive change came in 1998, when American mediation managed to put an end to the fighting inside Kurdistan, and the warring parties signed a peace agreement in Washington.
Due to the above mentioned, the idea of creating an independent newspaper was put off until 2000, that is to say following the relatively large change in the political and economic conditions of Kurdistan. That was when a young publisher and the manager of his firm had an idea. Both had been running a small printing press in the city of Sulaymaniyah (called Randge Print), and had long supported young writers by printing and publishing their works. They also helped disseminate voices and opinions that criticised the political and administrative situation in Kurdistan. The two entrepreneurs decided to talk about their idea with a limited number of young writers (including the author of these lines) by mid-2000. We were convinced by the idea and decided to start working on it.

The beginning was very difficult. Tension between the two major Kurdish political parties was still dominant in the political situation, and they used to look askance at every new project that did not come from their traditional supporters, seeing it as a seditious plot, woven by the rival party. We had to work with care and caution and move in small, but continued, steps. We did not believe in "revolutionary and immediate" change, as the common expression goes. We were well aware of the seriousness of the situation, yet believed that we had a margin of freedom which we had to use in a rational way so that we could secure and try to expand as much as possible.
We decided, as a first step, to try our best to dissipate the suspicions and the fears of the two political parties, seeking for the newspaper a name that was far from all sensitivities and ideological allusions, and making our financial reports public. We chose the Kurdish name "Hawlati", meaning "Citizen", and adopted transparency as a method by publishing our financial reports in full every three months on the pages of our newspaper, so that our financial sources were clear to all.

Without going into too much detail, I think it is necessary to give a brief explanation of the difficulties that we faced then, and still face to some extent:

Subjective difficulties:

1) As I indicated earlier, the biggest dilemma we faced was that we were not professional journalists, which were a rarity in Kurdistan. We were simply people brought together by their conviction of the need to create a free newspaper, an independent source of information and a free platform for the dissemination of different views points. We tried to learn by reading books on journalism, and our own mistakes, many times, turned out as our best teacher. Whenever a foreign journalist visited us, we used to ask for his or her own experience in order to learn from it.

2) Believing in the principle that states: "there is no independence without economic independence", we decided from the outset neither to accept nor ask for any financial assistance from any political party or official source. However, a few months after launching our newspaper, we faced a financial crisis. We then started to address readers and members of the Kurdish community living abroad seeking their help. Fortunately enough, a large portion of readers responded favourably, and a substantial number of those living outside the country decided to provide us with financial assistance each month. We carried on with that help during almost one year, until we reached a stage where we could rely on the revenues of the newspaper, and cease to receive financial assistance.

As for the difficulties that we faced in the journalistic work, I may well summarize them in the following points:

Firstly, the laws and the judicial system. These were, and still are, a big problem for us. On one hand, there is the Publications Act introduced by the former regime with the sole aim to suppress freedoms, and nothing else. On the other hand, we cannot say that the judiciary is fully independent in Kurdistan. The interference of the executive authority and the ruling political parties is quite visible at times.

Secondly, the prevailing political mentality. It is known that the intellectual roots of the Kurdish political parties, as is the case in the Middle East in general, stem from totalitarian ideologies: Marxist nationalism or Islamic, as in recent decades. It is true that the slogans and the political trends have changed a lot, but the remnants of that old mentality still prevail among some. The logic of "with me or against me" remains strong for certain people.

Thirdly, there is a problem related to the culture of society. Although the Kurdish community is more open in comparison to the surrounding communities, it is still a conservative society that does not easily accept the trespassing of cultural taboos. It is not easy for the press to talk about social and intellectual issues that are considered sensitive, such as sex, women, religion, etc.
Last but not least, the difficulty to access information sources was, and continues to be, one of the biggest obstacles to the journalistic work in Kurdistan. Information normally lies with the authorities, which monopolize and prevent the publication of what they deem harmful to their interests.

In short, we have faced various difficulties. We were targeted by accusations bordering the limit of treason, and sometimes subjected to the abuse of existing laws and even convicted. Some of our colleagues have been victims of physical violence and arbitrary imprisonment. There were occasions when all partisan media outlets (newspapers, radio and television) were used to tarnish our reputation and steer public opinion against us, etc. Despite all that, we have been able to stay in the race and put up with all the pressures and constraints. Therefore, I am not pessimistic. The fact that Hawlati's has continued to exist to this day, and through the recent birth of the daily Owinh (Mirror), the second independent newspaper in Kurdistan and for which I work now, is an evidence of the margin of freedom to which I referred earlier, as well as an opportunity to move on towards building an open society. The Kurdish authority, despite all the critical comments we might hold against it, has duly assumed the existence of independent newspapers which sometimes targets it sometimes with pungent criticism. That is not to say that we live in a paradise of democracy and freedom of expression. There is still a lot of work ahead to leave dictatorship and totalitarian rule behind, and to build a democratic, open society.

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