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Offensive NGO Watch
THU, 9 JUN 2011 11:56
By David Romano
If Human Rights Watch Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson is to be believed, the Kurdistan Regional Government is “no more respectful of Kurdish rights to free speech than the government that preceded it." The government that preceded the KRG must mean, of course, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. I’m not certain exactly what they have been smoking at Human Rights Watch, or who their field investigators have naively listened to, but this kind of offensive absurdity from a respected international human rights organization needs a response.
I write this week’s column from Rudaw’s office in Erbil, rather than half a world away in the United States. Since I began writing my Thursday column for Rudaw last August, no one – not the newspaper editors, not the authorities of the Kurdistan Regional Government, not anyone – has asked me to change what I wrote or avoid certain topics.
While in Dohuk a few days ago I also spoke to a friend who lectures at the university there. He told me how he recently found clear evidence of corruption among the local authorities, and wrote an article about it. He sent the article to top KRG leaders in Erbil, and also published it in one of several independent Kurdish newspapers in the region. Immediately after publication of the article, the KRG froze all business contracts and assets of the authorities involved and began an investigation. In other words, an independent media functioned in precisely the way it is supposed to – exposing government malfeasance and precipitating action to put an end to it.
Now, do I really need to spell out what would have happened to this friend of mine had he published such an article under the previous regime, or even just written the “glorious leader” a critical letter? Need we recall that under the previous regime, parents had to avoid discussing politics in the presence of their children, lest their children repeat something in school that their teachers would then report to the Mukhabaraat intelligence services, which would then arrest, torture and often execute the parents?
To say that the KRG’s respect for free speech even remotely resembles that of the previous regime, Human Rights Watch must be either completely ignorant of the Saddam era in Iraq, clueless about the complex situation in today’s Kurdistan, intent on grinding some political axe against KRG authorities, or just glibly making such statements to maximize the shock value of their reports. In addition to a growing number of independent media, every political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, including opposition parties like Gorran, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, Turkmen parties, Assyrian parties and even the Communist Party, have their own newspapers, publishing houses and television stations. Together, some two hundred weekly magazines, hundreds of different newspapers, and dozens of diverse television stations freely conduct a spirited debate of the region's politics. Yet to HRW, this situation seems no better than what prevailed under the "previous regime." I should think that it rather seems a good deal better than all the Arab states in the region, and more comparable to the situation in Turkey and Israel.
HRW also chose to describe Livin magazine as “one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s leading independent publications.” Livin may be independent of documented political party affiliation, but most people in the this region view it as a vociferous, incessant and often hysteric critic of anything and everything the ruling parties in Kurdistan say or do. By many accounts, Livin makes the British Sun tabloid newspaper look like a paragon of professionalism and objectivity. According to the more professional and truly independent journalists I’ve spoken to here, Livin has actually worsened governance in Kurdistan by intentionally quoting government officials out of context and manipulating their stories and interviews to fit pre-conceived, unreasonably critical and even defamatory story lines. This has resulted in greater difficulties for regular journalists who want to interview KRG leaders “on the record.”
Human Rights Watch nonetheless identifies many real and well known problems in their reports on Kurdistan. As can be expected in transitional, newly democratizing societies, these range from corruption, intimidation of some critics, occasional harassment of journalists, insufficient transparency, frequent judicial reliance on Ba'athist era laws rather than more recent legislation, and security forces that need to be divorced from the control of the two main Kurdish political parties. By invoking an absurd comparison to the “previous regime” and failing to provide context about the real nature of publications such as Livin newspaper, however, HRW tragically loses the credibility it had to talk about these problems.
When average people around here get especially frustrated about these real social and political problems, they may occasionally mumble something about “one thousand little Saddams” or “Ba’athist behaviour.” If you take the time to ask them what they really mean by that, however, all but a few, very peripheral Livin magazine types will admit that such a comparison remains ridiculous, and even offensive. Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch staff apparently didn’t get that memo.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since early August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).
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