State Responds to Iraqi Killings of Journalists: ‘More Voices, Not Fewer’

ERBIL, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 22: Supporters wave flags and chant slogans inside the Erbil Stadi
Chris McGrath/Getty

The U.S. State Department reiterated that it supports “more voices, not fewer” in international media in response to a string of legal actions against journalists and a particularly gruesome murder in Iraq, where Baghdad appears to be attempting to shut down all Kurdish voices.

During the State Department’s regular press briefing on Tuesday, a journalist asked spokeswoman Heather Nauert about a variety of incidents in the past week in Iraq, including Baghdad accusing two Kurdish television networks of “war crimes” for objective reporting on the invasion of Kirkuk and the murder of Kurdistan TV reporter Arkan Sharif.

“Some of this information is just coming in to us, so I can’t confirm all of these stories that you’re mentioning,” Nauert replied, but issued a statement of categorical support for the press. “Our position has not changed. We support freedom of the press. We believe that more voices, not fewer voices, is good for democracy, is good for people of various countries.”

Asked about how the U.S. would respond to a situation in which more deaths of journalists occurred in operations against the Kurdish population of Iraq, Nauert refused to “get ahead of anything,” noting that any further death would be “a concern of ours.”

The Iraqi military invaded land controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) following a non-binding vote in the region in September asking Kurds whether they would support seceding from Iraq. Over 90 percent of voters said yes and, while KRG officials insisted that they would seek dialogue with Baghdad before making any moves for independence, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rallied Iran-backed Shiite militias and launched an attack on KRG territory.

After weeks of reports of discrimination, human rights violations, and general affronts against Kurdish and Iraqi minority civilians as a result of the invasion, reports surfaced this week of the gruesome murder of a journalist covering the events. According to the local outlet Kurdistan24, “militiamen” stabbed Kurdistan TV cameraman Arkan Sharif to death in his home. He was found with multiple stab wounds and a knife in his cheek.

Sharif was living in Daquq after fleeing from nearby Kirkuk with his family. An estimated 100,000 people have done the same since the Iraqi government announced its invasion of Kirkuk city.

Kurdistan24 reports that the Kurdistan Satellite Corporation (KSC), a media outlet based in the KRG capital of Kirkuk, has attributed the murder to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF/PMU), a coalition of mostly-Shiite, Iran-backed militias that are legally part of the Iraqi armed forces. Many observers suggest that, given their sponsorship by Iran, it is Ayatollah Khamenei and not Haider al-Abadi who has the last word on the PMF’s actions.

KSC reported that Sharif was killed in front of his wife and children. KurdistanTV later confirmed this and also blamed a PMF militia, the Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

The United States has provided military equipment to the PMF and praised them for their prowess against the Islamic State.

“Murdering journalist Arkan Sharif is a vivid example of that chauvinist culture which has imposed itself on Kurdistan areas outside the KRG’s administration unlawfully and by the proliferation of weapons,” Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said in a statement. “These forces which have imposed themselves on the area unlawfully and unconstitutionally are responsible for the death of Arkan Sharif and harming people.”

Journalists working in Iraq complain that the PMF present an existential threat to journalism in the area. As al-Jazeera notes, the Committee to Protect Journalists puts the media death count in Iraq at 185 since 2002. Journalists speaking to al-Jazeera last month named the PMF militia accused of killing Sharif as a particularly prolific attacker of reporters.

“There are many militias [in the PMF], but with some, especially Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq or Kata’ib Hezbollah, you must take care,” an unnamed journalist said. “The others are probably not going to harm you.”

The Iraqi government has also moved against two major Kurdish broadcasters, Rudaw and Kurdistan24, attempting to ban them from all Iraqi airwaves. While both are based in Erbil and cover issues of significance for Kurdish Iraqis, they are largely unbiased in their presentation of news stories outside of the publication of clearly-labeled opinion commentary.

Rudaw itself reports that the KRG regional parliament has denounced the moves against the outlets.

“We announce that this decision is contrary to the Iraqi constitution. According to Article 115, in the event of having any legal problems between the Kurdistan Regional Government and federal government, the priority is given to the laws of the Region,” the parliamentary culture committee reportedly said in a statement.
In an opinion piece, Rudaw defended itself by noting that, without its journalists, many of the crimes committed by Iraqi government officials would go unreported. “The reality is that the Kurdish media, chief among them Rudaw, have worked to uncover crimes committed by Iraqi forces and militia groups, most recently in the war against ISIS,” the article argues. “You know a media outlet has done something right when you’ve to make up accusations and look for an excuse to shut it down.”

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