Iraqi Kurdistan is often described as Iraq’s bright spot, a region enjoying both security and democracy. Certainly, the region is more secure than Baghdad since, with only occasional exceptions, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have given it a pass. Praise for Kurdish democracy has also been highly exaggerated. Opposition parties are more active and there have been more successive political transitions in southern and central Iraq, especially in provincial elections, than in Kurdistan.
The real blight on Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been its treatment of the press. Corruption is rife in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it is in Iraq itself. In both portions of Iraq, the press has sought to tackle the problem. In Kurdistan, however, that is often a fatal task. On the evening of December 5, Kawar Germyani was gunned down outside his home in Kalar. Germyani was the editor-in-chief of Rayal, and a contributor to Awene (a journal for which, full disclosure, I occasionally contribute). He becomes the third journalist murdered in five years. Despite the Kurdish Regional Government’s rhetoric of security, none of the killers have been brought to justice. Germyani had previously sued Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo member Mahmud Sangawy for threatening the writer’s life after a corruption expose. When Sangawy refused to obey the court summons, he suffered no consequences.
The PUK’s targeting of journalists and its efforts to muzzle free speech are problematic for other reasons: The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani declares its political independence, but employees and students say they must be mindful of PUK sensitivities. That senior PUK officials involved in the university have yet to condemn the murder is more troubling still.
Iraqi Kurdistan could yet become a shining beacon, but it will never match its politicians’ rhetoric or its citizens’ hopes so long as the price for reporting on the activities of senior political party members is death. Unfortunately, while the United States has no leverage in Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan following its withdrawal, its silence amidst the murder of journalists seems to be interpreted by nominally pro-American parties like Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as a license to kill. Alas, the problem is not limited to Kurdistan. American progressives and Middle Easterners both hoped that President Barack Obama’s administration would usher in new attention to human rights and liberal values in the Middle East. That his commitment to human rights and liberty were rhetorical only is underscored by the fact of the tremendous decline in free press across the region, not only in Kurdistan, but also in Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere.