When Niyaz Abdullah accepted an award this month, the Iraqi Kurdish journalist used her speech to highlight the challenges for Kurdish media, activists and politicians.
“As I stand here, the Kurdistan Region and Iraq have transformed into a harrowing ordeal for journalists,” Abdullah told an audience in New York.
The Committee to Protect Journalists honored Abdullah for her unflinching coverage of Iraqi Kurdistan, despite risks to her own safety.
Abdullah had been due to receive the International Press Freedom Award in 2022 but was unable to travel at that time. Still, in her acceptance speech she called attention to her journalism colleagues — Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari and Qaraman Shukri — who are jailed in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Their plight is a consequence of their unwavering commitment to exposing and publicizing human rights violations and corruption,” Abdullah said.
Abdullah knows those challenges well. The freelance journalist has faced legal harassment over her criticism of Masrour Barzani, who is prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
Over the years, Abdullah has been arrested, detained and survived kidnapping attempts, she said.
“I don’t know how I survived until now,” she told VOA.
The Kurdistan Regional Government did not reply to VOA’s request for comment.
Abdullah in 2021 fled to France, where she now lives in exile. She still reports on Iraqi Kurdistan from afar, with a focus on politics and human rights.
Kurds are one of the largest stateless groups, with an estimated population of 30 million spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, journalists are often charged with national security crimes in relation to their work, Abdullah said.
That parallels broader press freedom trends on the global stage, where there is an “increased criminalization of journalists — in particular, using non-speech related charges against them,” CPJ president Jodie Ginsberg told VOA during a trip to Washington before the gala.
Mainstream media rarely covers the challenges facing Kurdish journalists, according to Kiran Nazish. The founder of the Coalition for Women in Journalism previously reported from Iraqi Kurdistan.
“[Abdullah’s] case brings a spotlight on to the larger issue of how Kurdish journalists and Kurdish women journalists are treated,” Nazish told VOA.
“Violations are high. They get arrested all the time, they get detained all the time, sometimes their equipment gets seized. There are lawsuits. Any journalist who reports on corruption knows that they’re going to face a lawsuit,” she added.
The stakes are particularly high for women journalists in the region.
“When you’re a woman journalist, the challenges and threats will be much more. First as a journalist, second as a woman,” Abdullah told VOA.
In her acceptance speech, Abdullah dedicated her award to journalists and activists jailed in the Badinan area of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“The prisoners in Badinan find themselves in a situation where they have become symbols of defending freedom of expression and revealing the truth despite the pressures they face,” Abdullah told VOA Kurdish.
“I am grateful that, despite all the threats and dangers they have encountered over the past few years, they have not wavered in their commitment to conveying the truth,” she added.
Abdullah also called attention to Mahsa Amini, the Iranian-Kurdish woman killed in police custody in 2022 in Tehran.
Amini and others “epitomize the struggle for freedom of expression or political freedom,” she told VOA Kurdish. “I see it as an award for all brave journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Although Abdullah is safer living in France, she says she has still endured online harassment via social media and attempts to hack her accounts. Family members who still live in the region are also harassed over the journalist’s work.
“I am always grateful to my family for bearing all the pressures during my years of work,” she said.
VOA’s Kurdish Service contributed to this report.