C ourt reporting is a staple ingredient of most journalism courses. But in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the doors to the court room remain firmly closed. ‘You need to know a clerk or a security man at the door,’Thaer Alhamdy, 26, said. Thaer was one of fifteen students I taught a human rights course to in Erbil at the institute Media Bo Khalk – media for the people – founded by Dutch journalist Judit Neurink.
Journalists in Iraq face more closed doors. The students who are enrolled in an eight-month journalism course generally avoid interviews with politicians or bureaucrats or are ignored by them. The recent government decision to close 44 media agencies in the country underlined the terse relationship between the media and government.
This is reflected in the choices the students make when asked to select a human rights issue to write about. They opt for ‘safe’ subjects, such as street children.
Iraqi journalists either become the mouthpiece of political parties or they operate independently and suffer the consequences, like Asos Hardi, the editor of the only independent newspaper in Iraqi Kurdistan, Awena. He was severely beaten up in August last year outside his office for criticising the government.
The students realise they face an incredibly volatile and unpredictable professional environment. ‘How do we know when it’s safe to ask difficult questions,’Achmed asks, a 26 year old Baghdadi who trained as an engineer and then decided he wanted to become a journalist. His brother and father were killed in a car bomb by Shia militias.
The war in Iraq has rapidly evolved into domestic anarchy, sustained by Maliki’s government with its murky allegiances to militias who terrorise the population. Journalists have become one of the biggest casualties; Iraq tops the bill of the global impunity index of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In other words, it is the most dangerous country in the world to work as a reporter. The autonomous quasi-state Kurdistan, in the north, is relatively safe compared to the rest of the country.
Most of the students at Media bo Khalk though, are from the southern part and hail from places like Baghdad, Mosul and Al Qa’im. They grew up amidst the chaos and destruction of war and the ensuing slide of the country into violent anarchy. Human rights have lost all meaning, I realise when discussing hate speech within the context of the right to freedom of expression.
The Iraqi government actively engages in hate speech. When Human Rights Watch recently reported that several dozen emo youths had been clobbered to death in the past year, the ministry of interior condoned and even encouraged the killings of these adolescents by militias, by labelling them as ‘satanic’.
With a government that actively encourages the extermination of deviant elements in society, there is not much to build a practice of human rights reporting, except for courage, which Ahmed seems to have: ‘I want to help build a new Iraq through my writing.”