Kurdish journalist Sarkawt Shamsulddin was arrested by security forces in Sulaimaniya on Wednesday while leaving the office of the Kurdistan Parliament in the city. He was taken to an unknown location and has not been heard from since.
Shamsulddin, the Washington, DC bureau chief for NRT TV, was in Kurdistan covering recent protests against government corruption and economic mismanagement. He had posted on Twitter and Facebook about the arrests of Newey Nwe leader Shaswar Abdulwahid and Gorran MP Rabun Maroof, the deaths of protestors at the hands of KRG security forces in Rania, and the shutdown of NRT TV.
His last message, posted hours before he was arrested, read: “PUK Security forces are running after protesters and others, including me. #Freedom4Shaswar #Freedom4Rabwn.”
Prior to his arrest, security forces raided the offices of NRT TV in Sulaimaniya, shutting the station’s broadcasting and websites down and destroying broadcasting equipment. The channel’s offices have been attacked before, including in both October and August of this year. While the government was not directly involved in those attacks, activists allege that they were undertaken with tacit government support.
Critical reporting under KDP and PUK rule has long carried steep risks. While the Kurdistan Press Law guarantees many protections for journalists, those who report on corruption and authoritarianism within the regional government have faced threats and violence. In 2016 alone, Wedat Ali Hussein and Shukri Zaynadin were killed under mysterious circumstances. During the lead-up to the referendum, reporters who criticized the process were singled out as “traitors” and “mercenaries” in pro-government media, and were targeted online. Shamsulddin was among those who faced such attacks.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has issued a statement in response to the attacks on NRT, saying that: “The United States supports freedom of expression in Iraq as a key component of the country’s democratic foundation, as enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution. We are concerned by recent actions to curb the operations of some media outlets through force or intimidation, specifically yesterday’s raid by Kurdistan Regional Government security forces of the NRT offices in Sulaimaniyah.”
Yet while U.S. weapons given to the KRG to fight ISIS are used against protestors on the streets of Kurdistan and while the previous murders of journalists have cause little international outrage, these are empty words. U.S. support for the Kurdistan Regional Government came with few political conditions. The immediate military needs of the war against the Islamic State took priority over criticism of President Massoud Barzani’s extending his term, the closing of the regional parliament, or the failure to pay public sector salaries. World powers enabled the conditions that led to the protests and supported the leaders who have responded to dissent with crackdowns and arrests. It is unlikely that international pressure to the extent that is needed will occur to push the KRG in the opposite direction.
Instead, the KRG must get out of the way of the will of its people. An organizer for the Sulaimaniya protests issued a statement on behalf of the demonstrators, claiming that “if those in power had any political principles, they would resign and prepare their testimony for when they are brought before the courts to answer for their responsibility for all of the tragedy, poverty and destruction that they have brought upon the people.” This view is evidently common among the thousands of demonstrators who have risked their lives in the streets and the journalists and activists who argue for democracy despite government threats. The necessary systemic changes in South Kurdistan will not occur at the hands of any political elites, and the parties in power cannot stop these changes by arresting critical voices. All who respect democracy should call for the freedom of all journalists and politicians in the KRG, and for a true democratic solution to the region’s problems.