photo: Eddy van Wessel


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Kurdish journalists lie?

This is a speech held at the Cultural Cafe in Sulaymaniya, on October 3, 2011, to start a debate on the Role of the Media in the Society.

The next three days we are together to discuss about the situation of the press. Why is there such an animosity between part of the press and politicians? That will be the main question in front of us. Well, many politicians will say: because the media are lying.

We are here to debate. That is why we initially took that rather hash saying as the title for our debates: media lie! To provoke you to come and debate.

Debating is something many Kurds find hard, I have found. They are more used to shouting to each other from the mountain tops, than to going down into the valley and exchange ideas. What is a debate: listening to each other, explaining to each other, and possibly making the other change his mind. A debate can be fierce, it can be tough, it can be fire. Yet at the end of a debate, the debaters and their listeners should have more information, they should be able to make up their minds in a better way. And at the end of a debate the opponents should be able to shake hands and go and share a tea or a beer together.

In Kurdistan the shouting from the mountain tops prevails. Debating asks of people that they listen, that they are willing to change their minds. In Kurdistan many people think they know it all and they can never change their mind. People think that changing your mind is weakness, while in the reality elsewhere to be able to collect enough information and combine it, and to admit that you were wrong is a matter of strength.

When I came to Kurdistan for the first time in 2003, I was traveling with my good friend from Holland, Mariwan Kanie. We conducted a first training for printed press here, in Sulaymaniya. Mariwan told me about his dream to start a debating centre here. But eight years later, we still do not have one. His plan did not come true. Why? Because people still shout from the mountain tops to each other.

To have a different opinion is almost seen as a sin. Like one is not supposed to have friends who have different political views. In Kurdistan it is not possible to have friends inside different parties. When they switch sides, the friendship ends. If you are not with me, you are against me.

Yet if you look at what happened in history, how the world has gained knowledge, how people moved forward – it has always been by comparing and sharing opinions and based on that: making decisions.

So let us tonight try to communicate, to talk to each other, to listen, to be open for another opinion without having to fight over it.

On the table is an urgent subject. The press in Kurdistan is under attack. Journalists are beaten up. They are threatened. Journalists are not allowed to get information. Politicians will not talk to some journalists. Civil servants only will give information anonymously. The press law is not used, instead judges use civil law to try members of the press. Huge fines are handed out. We know all this.

Where does this come from? Why is the animosity between press and politics so hot out here?
It is easy to put the blame at the other side. Part of it is there, at the other side, for sure. But part is with us, journalists.

And that surely is partly caused by the fact that we work in a culture of resistance. Kurds, and especially this city, have been fighting the rulers for many years. The Kurdish culture is one of resistance. And now that it is no longer needed, Kurds still fight. Who do they fight? The government of course. Even though this is a choosen government, it is a Kurdish government, made up of those who fought the Iraqi government before. They are your own people, and yet still you fight them. Out of principle, or out of habit? Or because of the content? That in itself is a subject for debate, I would say.

But one of the important issues here today is that journalists feel they are part of politics. Their opinion counts, they are part of the political game. And they are so wrong. Journalists are no politicians. They should not be, because they are supposed to be the translators of what happens in the society. They should inform the people about what is happening. They are the voice of the people, the mirror of the society. Their opinion is not important, or at least not as important as the opinion of those they should give a voice to – normal people in Kurdistan.

That is a main problem, and one of the causes of the animosity. And that leads to the use of tough words. Many journalists in Kurdistan are attacking the enemy with words. The language used in the Kurdish press at the moment is not neutral. Words are meant to hurt, they are provocative. The pen is the sword. The language is violent, and it shows no will to start a dialogue. Also journalists are shouting from mountain tops.

The two connect: journalists feel they are part of the political system, so they fight the enemy. With the sword of words. Where they should just show what is happening, report from the sideline.

So we have politicians who fight between themselves, and journalists who take sides. That explains part of the animosity. But not all.

As I have said before, journalists fail to get the information they need. There is no freedom of information act in Kurdistan yet, and a lot of information is only given anonymously. This leads to the bad habit of publishing stories that are based on only one, often anonymous source.

What is wrong with that? It leads to a press that cannot be trusted. An anonymous source can tell you anything he/she wants, he/she can make up whatever he/she wants, because who will find out? His/her name is not there, after all. So the source can feed you a story, and make you lie. This happens a lot in Kurdistan, I am afraid.

Rule number one: check, recheck, check again. Only publish what you know to be true. So check anything anyone tells you, however much you think you can trust him or her.

The press also lies in another way. Sometimes politicians want their party media not to tell the truth. Remember the oil transports to Iran? Some parties demanded from their journalists that they closed their eyes. And some parties consciously feed they journalists lies, to cover up their mistakes or their bad decisions.

And the third point I want to mention is journalists that lie to get the attention. Who invent stories, just to become a victim or a hero.

Lastly, Kurdistan is a gossiping nation. You like to talk about people, more than you talk to them, I have noticed. Hearsay is often taken as truth. Which is terrible in this country where shame, ayb, has so much influence. Hearsay is often made up, they are fabricated stories. Lies. I think you all know how dangerous this is.

So journalists in Kurdistan lie. I am sure you, between you, can find other examples. But let me put the question before you: is this a practice that you want to continue? And if so, what will be the result? What happens to the trust your public should have in you? Will people still buy your paper or watch your program? Or will they massively turn to foreign channels and music channels?

Now, I hope I have given you food for thought and food for debate.

And remember. I am only the messenger. Do not shoot me for that. I am asking you to debate about the matters that I have put on the table. Not to swear at me, for putting them there. I am provoking you to talk, to discuss. I am trying to lead you by the hand, from the hill tops into the valley. Will you follow me, please..?

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