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Stephen Brent

Why do journalists love Kurdistan so much?

Media outlets have glorified and fetishised aspects of Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 September, 2017

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Blog: While Kurdish militias are glorified in the media, press freedoms are suffering in Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region, writes Stephen Brent.

They say the Kurds have no friends but the mountains - a throwback to the days of Saddam Hussein, when thousands of Kurds fled to the hills of northern Iraq in what is now the Kurdish autonomous region.

Whether it's Netflix documentaries or newspaper front pages, magazine articles or political speech, Kurdish fever is rife. This is no accident. It is the result of a shrewd tactic to attract positive media coverage of the Peshmerga fight against the Islamic State group, and of the long-running Kurdish desire for independence.

With the Turkish government's increasing hostility to journalists, and the firming-up of border defences along the 800 kilometer border with Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan has become the natural hub from which media - both regional and international - have attempted to cover the phenomenon that is the Islamic State group.

As a result, media coverage of the Kurdish fight against IS has been massively over-represented, as compared with the battle waged by Syrian rebels or Iraqi government forces.

The reality is that much of the fighting against IS has been cast aside in favour of a not-wholly-accurate portrayal of the Kurds as an ally - democratic, tolerant and competent in battle - a natural western friend in the fight.

 
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The propaganda surrounding female Kurdish fighters, whose true presence on the battlefield tends to be negligible, has become an obsession of western media, with swathes of reportage endlessly fetishising them.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi's film of Peshmerga released earlier this year barely gave mention to the Iraqi Security Forces, save for a momentary comparison to the Nazis. In reality, much of the heavy lifting against IS in Iraq has taken place well away from any Kurdish front lines.

Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, Qayyarah and Mosul were all urban battles that barely included Kurdish forces. That's not to say the Peshmerga weren't involved, or that they weren't critical in defending cities such as Erbil and Kirkuk from an IS onslaught.

The propaganda of female Kurdish fighters, whose true presence on the battlefield tends to be negligible, has become an obsession of western media, with swathes of reportage endlessly fetishising them

The reality is that direct flights from much of Europe to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, plus easily gained "on-arrival" visas have led to an over-saturation of media coverage of the Kurdish fight against IS.

All the while, Iraqi soldiers have slaved away in militant strongholds in Anbar and Nineveh with barely a mention.

As Michael Knights put it in a recent paper for The Washington Institute: "US officials should correct the pervasive misunderstanding that the Kurds have carried a disproportionate burden in the fighting - a perception exacerbated by the relative ease of reporting from KRG territory during the war."

He adds: "In fact, every available metric shows that the ISF fought more battles and liberated more cities than other forces."

The result has created a media pool in the Kurdish Regional Government territory which not only fails to give Iraqi Security Forces their dues in the battle against IS, but also one that loyally regurgitates the KDP narrative on independence, and across the board, without hesitation.

NRT, a Kurdish channel strongly linked to an anti-referendum movement named 'No for Now' has found itself on the end of attacks and assaults. Journalists working for the channel have been branded 'traitors'

The Kurdish case for independence is now strongly attested to in Europe and the US, a result of the KRG's decision to open itself up to international media, but an unbalanced debate on the matter risks leaving the Kurdish cause vulnerable to under-scrutinised threats - the loyalty the Kurdish Regional Government now demands from international media based in the region is also a source of significant weakness.

The relationship has also created an atmosphere of intolerance. To go against the KDP narrative is not taken lightly, nor is it embraced as part of a pluralistic media. NRT, a Kurdish channel strongly linked to an anti-referendum movement named "No for Now' has found itself on the end of attacks and assaults. Journalists working for the channel have been branded "traitors".

On Wednesday, as President Masoud Barzani made a speech in Sulaimania, an opposition stronghold, a live NRT broadcast was harassed and eventually shut down by security services. Elsewhere in the KRG, the list of local journalists who have mysteriously disappeared in recent years is growing.

If an independent Kurdistan is to come about, and to succeed, and the region is to be able to withstand the post-IS security threat, then Kurdistan must embrace a truly pluralistic media - not one that demands loyalty in return for access. One in which journalists may write articles critical of Barzani's government and not be forced to request anonymity from their editors.

Stephen Brent is a journalist who has reported from across Iraq. Stephen Brent is not his real name, which has been changed for his security.

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