Deaths Of Journalists In Sulaymaniyah Undermine History Of Free Speech
In the mid-1990s, Kurdistan was split politically as Erbil and Sulaymaniyah during the civil war came under the control of two parties with differing approaches to press freedom, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) respectively.
Erbil province, administered by the KDP and known as the Yellow Zone because of the colour of the party’s flag, was always seen as more conservative. Sulaymaniyah and the administrations of Karamian, the Green Zone, also a namesake of the party’s colour, encouraged freedom of expression to blossom.
But the number of activists and journalists who have disappeared or being killed in Sulaymaniyah province this year alone has raised alarm bells about freedom of expression in the traditionally more open of the two provinces.
On Friday, August 18, Mullah Saman Sankawi, the imam and preacher of the Chamchamal Mosque was attacked and wounded in front of his mosque. The cleric had been very critical of authorities in the region and opposes the KDP’s planned referendum on Kurdish independence, due to take place on September 25th this year.
“We are living in a zone where we often take pride that we have freedom of expression and that it is to a certain extent better than the Yellow Zone,” Mullah Saman told Niqash. ”But this only holds true as long as personal interests are not threatened. When they realize that their personal and party interests are at stake, they are not only ready to attack you, but also to kill you. This isn’t freedom or democracy.”
The attack on Mullah Saman came just a few minutes before Friday prayers. The Asayesh, (the security forces) in the area confiscated the surveillance cameras at the front of the mosque. They reportedly later told Mullah Saman that they were not working.
“People’s lives are in danger and the PUK is responsible for this situation. I don’t have any personal problems with anyone and I was only beaten because I attack the ruling party, speak about corruption, injustice and the starvation of people,” added Sankawi. “And I say no to the referendum.”
Neutrality at stake
Sulaymaniyah province has witnessed many demonstrations and major protests during the 26 years of rule by Kurdish parties. It is the cradle of dissent, as well as partisan and non-partisan media in Kurdistan.