Monthly Spotlight: The Barzani Family’s Control Over Kurdish media

File photo (Presidency of the Kurdistan Region/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Top stories from March

  • Rudaw: US ‘concerned’ about KDP election boycott – March 18th, 2024: The US State Department has said it is “concerned” by the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) recent decision to boycott the Kurdistan Region’s long-overdue general elections. The KDP announced that it will not take part in the election on June 10, describing the elections as “illegal” and “unconstitutional” following the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court’s ruling to eliminate minority quota seats, Rudaw reported. In a press briefing, US State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said: “We’re concerned by the KDP’s announcement…we don’t think that boycotting these elections will serve the interests of the IKR, the Kurdish people, or Iraq in general.”
  • Amwaj.media: Deep Dive: How election boycott may backfire for KDP – March 22nd, 2024: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) risks “marginalizing itself” with its decision to boycott the upcoming regional legislative elections, Amwaj.media has reported. According to Amwaj.media, other Kurdish groups have avoided supporting the KDP’s boycott.
  • Kurdistan Times: Barzani’s Misplaced Hope for Dismissal of Kurdistan Victims Fund Case March 12th, 2024: Academic Michael Rubin argues that Masrour Barzani’s hope for dismissal of the Kurdistan Victims Fund (KVF) case on sovereign immunity grounds faces challenges for four reasons: Masrour is a U.S. permanent resident, the Supreme Court precedent against former officials in similar cases undermines Masoud’s immunity claims, the lawsuit falls outside the scope of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and the Alien Torts Case Act of 1789 grants U.S. courts jurisdiction over civil actions for violations of international law.
  • Rudaw: KRG decides to pay delayed salaries of civil servants – March 27th, 2024: The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has decided to pay the delayed February salaries of its civil servants, according to Rudaw. Despite having received partial funds from Baghdad for February’s salaries, the KRG had demanded full payment, citing inadequate coverage, the report added.

The Barzani family’s control over Kurdish media

In late February this year, Kurdish journalist Omed Baroshky was arrested by three police officers in the city of Duhok on charges of defamation. After paying bail of three million dinars (approximately US$2,291) he was released but is awaiting trial for violation of Kurdistan’s Article 2 of the Misuse of Communication Devices law.

Baroshky’s story is not isolated. Accusations of a crackdown on media freedom in the KRI have become increasingly common. Last year, the Kurdish journalist Amin Sherwani had a prison sentence extended by four years after he was charged with endangering the safety and sovereignty of Kurdistan by covering anti-government protests.

The situation in the KRI even led to an intervention by the U.S. earlier this year. In a statement, the U.S. Consulate in Erbil said that it was “concerned about the recent backsliding of press freedom in the KRI”.

Reporters Without Borders has also expressed concern about journalists being targeted. In an August 2022 report, the organization called on Kurdish authorities to “stop sacrificing media pluralism to political rivalry”.

Why therefore is one of the U.S.’s most important allies in the Middle East continuing to suppress media freedom?

The Barzani-led Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has served as a key U.S. ally in Iraq and the wider region for the best part of three decades. The clan played an important role alongside Western troops in fighting Saddam Hussein’s regime and more recently countering the threat posed by ISIS.

Given the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East, the Barzanis have continued to benefit from Washington’s financial, political and military support. This has helped the clan amass vast wealth, which is used to fund a largely partisan press that drowns out dissenting voices.

Masrour Barzani meeting with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, February 2024 (Kurdistan Regional Government/Public domain)

Ultimately, the Kurdish media landscape is dominated by the interests of politically motivated patrons, chief among them the Barzanis and their political party the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Kurdistan24 and Rudaw, two of the largest media outlets in Kurdistan, are factional communications machines frequently used for the pursuit of rivalrous internal political ambitions.

Kurdistan 24, owned by Prime Minister Masrour Barzani , and Rudaw, owned by President Nechirvan Barzani, serve as pivotal media outlets shaping factional narratives, each strategically aligned with their respective owner’s political aspirations within the region. This rivalry is palpable in their reporting: both outlets amplify their owner’s activities and initiatives while often side-lining or minimizing coverage of their counterpart’s endeavors. Take, for example, the COP28 in Dubai in December 2023, where separate delegations from the KRG, headed by the Prime Minister and the President, participated in the conference. Despite their shared involvement, both outlets chose to spotlight almost exclusively on their owner’s attendance, scarcely acknowledging the presence or contributions of their rival’s delegation.

The Middle East Institute recently pointed out that “media coverage in the Kurdistan Region largely promotes the interests of politically motivated patrons, rather than performing a public service mission of providing impartial and high-quality information to all audiences”.

Independent outlets and journalists that question the official narrative, such as Baroshky and Sherwani, often face a fine or imprisonment.

Even more concerning are accusations that the clan have persecuted Barzani-critical journalists by extrajudicial means.

In 2017, Ibrahim Abbas Bratley, a journalist and former press aid to Masoud and Nechirvan Barzani, was beaten in Erbil by five men holding electric cables for posting critical content of the KDP.

According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the gang attacked him while shouting “we are Barzani’s family”.

File photo (Kurdish VOA (Ahmad Zebari)/Public Domain)

As an election approaches this year in the KRI, the clan continues efforts to control Kurdish media.

We saw this when the KRG attempted to implement a media directive last year that would require the security vetting of journalists publishing online. The KRG eventually succumbed to pressure to cancel the decision.

Now, some Kurdish activists living in the diaspora have taken matters into their own hands.

The Barzanis’ attacks against the free press were echoed recently in a lawsuit filed by the Kurdistan Victims Fund, a U.S.-registered non-profit foundation established in 2023. According to the complaint, “Journalists who write, broadcast, or podcast critically of Defendant Masrour Barzani or his father Defendant Masoud Barzani often disappear or are imprisoned and never seen again”.

The complaint’s defendants – many of them members of the Barzani family – stand accused of authorizing their agents to commit crimes including “extrajudicial killings, genocide, hostage taking and kidnapping, enforced disappearances, inhuman treatment, torture, rape, crimes against humanity, and multitudinous other unlawful and material acts”.

It remains to be seen if the Barzanis will continue their control of the media, particularly as public anger of the state of the KRI’s economy worsens.

What is clear however is the bravery of independent journalists in the KRI who recognise that media freedom is an essential part of democracy.

What to watch

  • Along with the KDP, ethnic and religious minority political parties are boycotting the 10 June 2024 election date in the KRI. Christian parties such as the Chaldean Democratic Union said they would not participate in the vote over a ruling by the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court on 21 February 2024 which removed quota seats from the Kurdistan Region Parliament.

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