The first anniversary of the protests in Kurdistan passed almost unnoticed. Small numbers of people gathered in the main square in Sulaimani and a number of other cities amid a heavy security presence, there to avert any riots or violence. The protesters chanted some slogans and went home. Observers point to a clear improvement in the situation and in relations between people and the authorities in the region.
Behavior of the security forces in Sulaimani changed the above story to the following:
The first anniversary of the protests in Kurdistan, and namely in Saray Azadi (Freedom Square), was marked by a muscle-flexing exercise by authorities. Hundreds of forces in Peshmarga uniforms were brought to the square to prevent any gathering. The forces attacked a number of journalists who were there to cover the anniversary. Well-known journalist and rights activist Rahman Gharib, head of the Metro Centre for the defense of journalists, was beaten up by almost 20 of them. He was then taken to the Peshmarga command and released. He was not reachable until the time of writing this report because they took his phone from him.
Kamaran Najm, head of Iraq’s first and only photo agency, was also beaten up and arrested while trying to free Rahman from the mob.
His colleague, American photographer Sebastian Myers, was also taken by the forces and threatened with deportation for taking photos. The Kurdish authorities are known for welcoming international journalists to report about the region to the world. But this seems to have changed.
Kamaran and Sebastian held a number of photo exhibitions in the U.S. last year to “show the bright side or the other face of Iraq,” meaning Kurdistan. “But it seems that we were wrong,” says Kamaran.
A number of other journalists, activists and lawyers were also beaten up and some were arrested and later released without charges.
The Associated Press’s reporter and photographer in Sulaimani, Yahya Barzanji, had to hide his camera in a plastic shopping bag and pretend that he was a passerby, not a journalist. “It pains me that I had to do this in Sulaimani, the city we used to brag about for its freedoms,” said Yahya. “The last time I had to hide my camera like this was in Baghdad for fear of the terrorists and authorities.”
The same day, a reporter for the private news channel NRT was accused by the authorities of encouraging someone to set fire to himself in Erbil in order to film him. In a statement, NRT, the channel that was burnt down last year, categorically denied the accusation and called on authorities to investigate the claims.
Observers say that freedoms in Kurdistan are deteriorating and the authorities are growing more and more paranoid towards any criticism or opposition.
The first news item could have been a quiet and calm 67-word report that showed the world that Kurdistan is different from the rest of the region and that the Kurdish authority is different from the rest of the regimes in the region.
The second is a 379-word damning report that shows the region in a bad light and tells the world that Kurdistan is no different from the rest of the region. The events mentioned in the report will also be quoted by various international rights and press freedom groups.
Someone in Kurdistan is responsible for what happened and must be held to account. If it is a junior official, then this person should be sacked, and if it is a senior unmovable official, then I strongly suggest that this person reads both versions of the Feb. 17 news report and thinks for a moment of the damage done to the region’s reputation, and then resigns. Because this person will make many more blunders as long as he is in charge.