ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A press freedom and protection organization says “threats against journalists will worsen” even though ISIS has largely been ousted from in Iraq and Syria.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) predicted released on Thursday after a mission to Erbil and Lebanon in March that a post-ISIS Middle East would come with the “emergence of militias, political pressure, censorship, and sectarianism that would pose a threat” to journalists in a new report.
"I don't think the end of [Islamic State's] presence in Syria will bring any opportunities for Syrian journalists, says Abdalaziz al-Hamza, co-founder of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a citizen journalist group that covered atrocities under ISIS rule. “Threats against journalists will worsen.”
Co-founder, Ragaz Kamal of 17Shubat for Human Rights, a local Kurdish rights organization told CPJ that journalists in Iraq face threats threefold from “armed groups that have gained political cover, like the PMF, political parties and authorities because of their job.”
“None of these groups tolerate criticism and they are rarely held accountable for their actions against journalists,| Kamal added. “ The end of [Islamic State] will not change much for journalists in either Iraq or Kurdistan."
Rahman Gharib, coordinator of a Kurdish freedom of press organization highlighted the dangers that such militias pose, mentioning the case of Arkan Sharifi, a Kurdish cameraman working with the Erbil-based Kurdistan TV who was stabbed to death by a number of unidentified gunmen in the town of Daquq south of Kirkuk.
Rudaw's 2016 coverage of the liberation of Mosul has been commended and syndicated by major US news networks including CNN, Fox News, and ENEX, a European TV network.
"Not only do militias threaten journalists, they also identify them on a sectarian basis as Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Arabs,” Gharab said. “Journalists are threatened, harassed, and sometimes killed. Arkan Sharifi for example, was killed by the PMUs," he added, referring to the Popular Mobilization Forces, the mostly Iran-backed militia including Hashd al-Shaabi that works alongside the Iraqi military.
Gharib added that journalists’ own climate of self-censorship along with the lack of proper protection for journalists, prevents media workers from playing their vital role in society.
"If Iraqi journalists had access to public information they could play a pivotal role in Iraq's struggle against corruption, but journalists face threats and murder if they uncover instances of corruption, Gharib said. “Journalists in Iraq need laws to protect them and those laws are lacking in our country.”
He did say that there are laws in Kurdistan which regulate the work of journalists and access to information; however, journalists still face violence in their line of work.
Shifa Gardi, a 30-year-old female Kurdish journalist who was a presenter for Rudaw, died while chasing a lead on an ISIS mass grave near Mosul on February 25.
Her cameraman, Younis Mustafa, was also badly wounded in the bomb blast. He has since recovered and returned to work.
Another local Kurdish journalist Bakhtiyar Haddad died while working as a fixer in Mosul on June 19 along with three French journalists.
The Kurdistan Region’s bid for independence in the September 25 referendum vote stirred further tension in Kurdish areas which left journalists and media outlets in a political crossfire.
CPJ reported that they documented “how outlets and journalists regarded as critical or anti-independence by Kurdish authorities in Erbil had broadcast signals blocked, offices attacked, or were ordered to leave the city of Kirkuk.”
Rudaw, itself, has been affected in the post-ISIS phase. In October, Rudaw staff in Baghdad received threats and the Iraqi military banned Rudaw from Kirkuk. Rudaw has since closed those offices, as well as pulling its reporter from Shingal and other disputed or Kurdistani areas claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad.
"We expected the Iraqi government to condemn this move and speak in defense of our staff," Rudaw Media Network stated at the time, expressing that Iraq's Media and Communications Commission is discriminatory because it calls Rudaw "a Kurdish channel."
NRT, one of the largest media outlets in the Kurdistan Region with its headquarters in Sulaimani, was closed down on Tuesday. The KRG's Ministry of Culture alleged the network of inciting violence amid the burning of several political office buildings.
NRT stated several of its staff had been briefly detained or arrested by Sulaimani security (Asayesh forces). Shashwar Abdulwahid, whom the network described as the "former owner" of the news organization, was "kidnapped," had headed the campaign against the Kurdish vote on independence held in September, and has since formed the New Generation party. The businessman-turned-politician called on the people to protest against the government.
In neighboring Syria, Yara Bader, head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression told CPJ that press freedom doesn’t rank high in any of the Syrian parties’ agendas, noting that the future for journalists will depend on who is in power in a country with numerous political players.
“In areas held by Assad, journalists are jailed on terrorism charges, media are strictly controlled, and torture and disappearances are common. Islamist factions are equally repressive of journalists. In the Kurdish-held areas, journalists enjoy more freedoms, but there are also arrests,” he said.
Syria was labeled as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists and media workers in CPJ’s annual World Press Freedom Index report released on Tuesday, Since the beginning of the nearly seven-year long civil war, further complicated with ISIS control, led to the death of 114 journalists.
Based in Berlin, Germany, Bader lauds journalists who are able to move abroad to countries with more press freedom so that they can create their own independent outlets to improve the quality of their job.
“However, I don't think there will be room for them to come back to Syria.” he said.