The plight of Kurdish journalists in their struggle for free expression

“Kurdistan” means “the land of Kurds.” This map extends the concept to cover the greater region with any significant Kurdish population and encompasses parts of the territories of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Map By Ferhates – Own work. Wiki media commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

This year, stateless Kurdish journalists across all four parts of Kurdistan — where Kurds are often isolated from the larger societies of the countries in which they live: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran — are facing a particularly difficult situation due to increasing oppression and censorship by the authorities.

The Kurds, a stateless ethnic group of around 30 million people, have a shared culture, language, and identity. They have been fighting for independence for centuries, and are one of the largest groups of stateless people in the world. 

Unlike many journalists around the world who face threats related to their work, Kurdish journalists face a different kind of challenge. They lack a recognized nation-state of their own and thus have no political recognition. As a result, they face significant opposition from the counties in which they reside, which often attempt to erase their identity and suppress their freedom of expression. 

Kurdish journalists also face challenges when dealing with Kurdish authorities and political parties in the areas where they have a degree of autonomy, such as Iraq. According to a Foreign Policy article on March 22, 2023:

[Political parties in Kurdistan] restrict freedom of expression within their zones of control, forcibly preventing protests from taking place. Iraqi Kurdish journalists are regularly arrested or otherwise blocked from covering local news; a local watchdog catalogued at least 431 violations last year.

The persecution of Kurdish journalists in Turkey

Infographic: Where the Most Journalists Are Imprisoned | Statista

This infographic is taking from Statistica, under the CC BY-ND 2.0 license. Fair use

Turkey currently holds the dubious distinction of being one of the top ten countries that have highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world according to a report by Reporters without Borders in December 2022.  The Erdogan regime increased its crackdown on Kurdish journalists as local elections approach.

Last month, at least 110 persons were arrested ahead of the Turkish presidential elections on May 14, including members of the pro-Kurdish Persons’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its deputy co-chair, Özlem Gündüz

HDP issued a statement on April 25, highlighting the situation: 

Journalists working in Turkey's east and southeast, which are primarily Kurdish, are more likely to be tortured and imprisoned than in other parts of the country. They appear to be subject to different rules than their colleagues elsewhere.

Moreover, the most frequent charges brought against journalists in Turkey are insulting the president, spreading propaganda, and insulting Turkish identity. As a consequence, journalists reporting on the Kurdish issue in western Turkey are often accused of spreading propaganda and may face terrorism charges.

Challenges facing Kurdish journalists in Iraq's Kurdistan region

A group of Kurds celebrating the fall of the Saddam Hussein Regime by toppling his statue. This screenshot is of events that took place on 10 April 2003 from an AP Archive video on 21 July 2015. Fair use.

Since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy within the borders of the Republic of Iraq. 

Despite having its own parliament, ministries, and even laws, the region still remains unsafe for freedom of expression for Kurds. Kurdish authorities in the Kurdistan region continue to take advantage of vaguely written laws that criminalize opposing opinions.  These laws are often used to intimidate and, in some circumstances, prevent journalists, activists, and other dissenting voices in regions controlled by both the federal government and the KRG from expressing their opinions and reporting on important issues without fear of retaliation from authorities.

Kurdistan regional authorities frequently employ regional laws, including the Press Law and the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment, to silence journalists and activists who exercise basic rights, such as the right to assembly.  

The Press Law in the Kurdistan region of Iraq was issued in 2007 and primarily focuses on regulating printed newspapers and magazines, with no specific mention of digital media. As a result, online media falls into a legal gray area, and authorities can use other vaguely worded laws, such as the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment, to punish those who publish content that they deem as violating national security or other laws.

While the Press Law is flexible, it is rarely used in the KRG region. As a result, journalists in the KRG cannot rely on the Press Law to protect them when reporting on sensitive issues. Instead, they must navigate the legal gray area surrounding online media and other laws that authorities may use to suppress their work.

Kurdish journalists also confront obstacles when it comes to organizing protests. According to the Kurdish Law for Organizing Protests in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, all protests must obtain written permission from the regional interior minister or the local administrative unit. If permission is denied, protesters may face criminal charges.

Kurdish journalists remain hopeful for a more stable and secure working environment where they can exercise their rights to free expression without fear of reprisal or persecution.

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