The hysterical reaction against NRT television reminded me of the Muslim outrage to cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
For those who don’t know what happened: During a live call-in show on NRT, a caller tried to insult the late Mustafa Barzani, regarded by many Kurds as the father of the Kurdish nation in modern times.
NRT immediately cut the call and continued the show. Hours later, several hundred people gathered outside the television station and – employees say – threatened to attack the building.
Airing live shows, and giving a voice to people who otherwise are denied that right, is part of the work of any good media outlet. The possibility that a few will abuse that public space comes with the territory. An exaggerated reaction sends all the wrong messages, and results in negative consequences.
As the region’s officials brag about free media in Kurdistan, a reaction like this throws cold water on everything they say. It also proves that the authorities, namely the main ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), cannot tolerate criticism and hides behind the figure of Father Mustafa Barzani.
This kind of reaction gives away the secret of how to get a hysterical reaction out of the KDP. In many ways, the person who called the show is like the Iraqi shoe thrower who hurled his footwear at US President George W. Bush. The caller could have been ignored and a complaint could have been made to the channel. But NRT’s reaction gives ideas to many people who hate the KDP on how to get a rise out of the party.
But the reaction to the broadcast and the events that followed are also noteworthy. They are a product of the anti-media culture that exists among the region’s authorities – a phenomenon noticed by many outside and inside the region.
Earlier last week, the Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami launched an unjustified verbal attack on a journalist who asked a question about oil routes and revenues – a perfectly normal question anywhere else. The minister’s response was exactly framed to accuse the journalist of being an enemy of Kurdistan for not appreciating the 24-hour electricity and other basic services that the government is providing, services taken for granted in any stable, modern and well-governed part of the world.
These two isolated but yet connected events are contributing to an even worse relationship between the authorities and the media.
In the absence of clear guidelines and a legal framework in the region for freedom of speech and the right to information that corresponds to today’s media and modern technology, these events will continue to occur.
Had there been a clear regulation for freedom of speech, the NRT presenter would have been able to tell the caller that he is being cut off for breaching a law or a regulation — if it was a breach.
Had there been a regulation for the right to information, the journalist would have been able to tell Mr, Hawrami that he has no right to attack him this way because his ministry still does not have a website to inform the nation about what is happening to their wealth.
Until all this happens, the authorities and will remain suspicious of the media, and the media will remain shackled by borders.