SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQI KURDISTAN - Crouching behind the smoke of a burning tire left by anti-government protesters, I tried to shoot a photo of the approaching security forces. As they moved closer, one member of the security forces spotted the camera in my hand, pointed a baton at me and shouted, “Move that camera or I will cut your throat!”
In many parts of the world, threatening to cut the throat of a journalist might sound like dark humor, but where I report, it is a dark reality.
On that day, street demonstrations in Sulaymaniyah were ongoing – again. Protests against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) happen periodically as economic crises rise and abate while leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region argue about oil with the central Iraqi government.
In the past year, public employees, the overwhelming majority of wage earners in the region, have not received paychecks, or, they have seen pay or pensions decrease amid economic mismanagement. With residents frustrated at the political establishment in the region and public workers demanding unpaid salaries, thousands stormed the streets this month to demand change.
Demonstrations turned violent when security forces confronted protesters with bullets and tear gas, and detained hundreds, including at least eight journalists. Protesters attacked buildings belonging to the government and opposition parties.
In one week, eight protesters and two members of the security forces were killed, more than 100 were injured and hundreds more detained.
As a journalist, covering such demonstrations is risky. And Iraq already has a reputation for being deadly for the media. Some 340 have been killed here since 1990 — the highest toll globally -- according to figures released by the International Federation of Journalists.
While unsettling, the threat leveled at me during the Dec. 11 Sulaymaniyah protests wasn’t the first I had received.
In 2018, while covering the Kurdistan region parliamentary elections, I reported on fraud taking place in polling stations. Later that night, as I sat in a café uploading election video footage and photos to VOA, I received a call from a “private number.”
“You better stop, or we will send our wolves to you,” the caller said before hanging up. Scared, I looked around to check if I was being watched. I immediately left and told close friends about the call.
Journalists here know that when something like that happens, the smart choice is to find a place to stay with a buddy until tensions pass.
When I joined VOA in 2017, I considered myself lucky for many reasons. One was that working with an international media outlet afforded some protection. The world would hear about the murder of a VOA reporter.
Fellow journalists such as Sardasht Osman, Kawa Garmeyani, Soran Mama Hama, Wedat Hussein and others in the Iraqi Kurdistan region who called out corruption or criticized the authorities, did not have that protection. Authorities have denied involvement and condemned deadly attacks against them, but their cases remain unsolved.
On the night that Garmeyani, who was editor-in-chief of the newspaper Rayal, was killed in front of his mother in December 2013, I joined hundreds of others in the rain outside his home in Kalar. Devastated by the loss of a fellow journalist, we shouted, “We are all Kawa!” Then there was a moment of silence. Tears and rain mixed on our cheeks.
The region’s journalists are officially afforded protections under the KRG’s 2008 press laws but, these measures are rarely applied. Media workers are not supposed to be jailed under the law, but authorities frequently detain journalists, especially during protests. The local Metro Center for Journalists Rights and Advocacy has a slogan: “The law does not protect us.”
The KRG response is usually to say that the journalists are acting irresponsibly, or it brings charges under the communications law, which covers content on social media platforms.
With the most recent demonstrations, security forces attacked and detained journalists. Some were forced to erase memory cards that contained footage of the protests. The KRG’s Ministry of Culture and Youth shut down NRT’s TV channel for “acting irresponsibly” and sent warnings to other outlets threatening the same if they did not stop broadcasting material that incites “violence or sabotage or the disturbing of social cohesion.” By that, they meant broadcasting footage of the protesters attacking offices of the ruling political parties and government.
But journalists have a code of ethics by which they are supposed to abide. And first is to seek the truth and tell it. Journalists have a moral responsibility to shed light on dark places. And when blood flows, so should ink.
Following this code can have serious consequences in Iraq and the Kurdistan region.
Osman, a young Kurdish journalist and student from Erbil, received death threats after reporting on corruption of local authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2010, he was kidnapped and murdered. In September, the KRG issued a report saying an extremist group murdered him because Osman failed to carry out its work. Rights groups say the government’s report provided no evidence and lacked credibility.
In a letter published before his death, Osman wrote of the threats, saying, “I was told for the first time that my life is going to end.” The freelancer said he reported the threats to the police, but they did nothing.
His letter ended, “As long as we are alive, we should speak the truth. And when my life ends, let my friend put a full stop at the end of the sentence, and start a new one.”
It’s a request that I and other journalists in the region work hard to uphold each day.