photo: Eddy van Wessel


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Open letter to Nechirvan Barzani

It is looking more and more like a power struggle. The relation between journalists and police in Iraqi Kurdistan is a difficult one. After hundreds of incidents involving journalists in the two last years, the main question is now: how to keep journalists safe.

The reasons for the incidents are many, as we discussed with Kurdish editors in chief in Sulaymaniya, on February 15, 2012. It is because some journalists feel part of the political system, and don't realise their role as informer to people about what is happening in their country. They do not realise their power is in providing information, in a fair and unbiased way, so people can make their own choices.

Journalists in Kurdistan often are activists. In their work, but also on the street. In some cases journalists are known to have thrown stones and shout slogans. And then they stopped being member of the press and became an individual, as one of the participants in the meeting said. For the police, there was no difference between them or other demonstrators.

I was sad that some journalists I respect very much, last year decided to become part of the protest movement by holding speeches. That is not your job, I have tried to tell them, and it makes you seem to be with the demonstrators. Again, that is how the police saw them.

Part of the problem lies with the fractures inside the Kurdish press. Many journalists work for party media, so they are aware of the policy of their party, and of their role in the media that gives people only the information the party thinks is fit to read. Or - to make it more complicated - what they feel the party thinks is fit. Many party journalists censor themselves, while the party would allow much more than they think.

The other group is made up of independent journalists, and journalists working with the opposition parties. For outsiders, they are seen as equal. They are all against the government, they write against it and in some cases act against it.

It is a long way to make the change here. But we can start by making journalists understand their role during demonstrations. I was joined by a number of respected Kurdish journalists and opinion makers when I asked editors in chief to instruct their staff on how to behave during demonstrations. Keep out, do not mingle with the protesters, report from the side lines, and make yourself visible by wearing a special PRESS vest. Be visible and stay safe.

We presented the editors in chief with special orange vests with the word PRESS on them.

Some participants in the meeting called this naive. As if the police would act differently when confronted with journalists in orange vests. They said it would even be dangerous, as journalists would be more recognisable - that would make it only easier to attack, harass and arrest them.

Partly true, we found. The meeting was held in anticipation of the remembrance of the bloody unrest of February 17, 2011. Everybody was expecting new protests, a year after the start of the demonstrations that cost a number of lives and lasted for months. The police too. They were out in force to prevent protesters to take to the streets. And when hardly any came out, they started harassing and arresting the photographers who dared to take pictures of the situation.

Amongst those arrested was (in the picture) Rahman Garib of the Metro Centre to Defend Journalists - in the very first orange vest I presented him with during the meeting. He is a photographer too, and was doing his job. In total around ten reporters were picked up, most of them were released a couple of hours later, some after being threatened severely.

Why? These journalists were doing their job. There is no law in Kurdistan that prohibits reporters from taking photographs during demonstrations. The Press Law says that journalists have the right to collect information. Well, some do it by writing, some by filming, some by taking photographs.

I try to get this message across to young officers in security police - those that are out on the streets during demonstrations. In my lectures I try to get them to understand that police and journalists are both serving the people. That it is their responsibility too to make sure journalists can.But they receive different instructions from their bosses, who still consider journalists as the enemy. Who think that in this day and age of internet you can still avoid that pictures are taken during demonstrations - which are important moments in a democracy when people speak out and should be heard. These bosses get their ideas from the parties they are member of, or from politicians they are close to.

Therefore journalists in Kurdistan will only be safe and able to do their work, when politicians speak out for them. When the new government, that is formed in the next weeks, defends the rights of the press and openly supports measures to improve press freedom and prevent censorship. When it supports the idea that journalists that make themselves visible as such during demonstrations and play their role as reporter without becoming involved, will be allowed to do their work.

I will be knocking on a lot of doors in the coming weeks to get this message across. But right now I knock on one door in particular: the door of the returning Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, who is forming his cabinet at the moment. I have heard him declare support for the press more than once, saying that without free (international) press the Kurds would have been lost in 1991, and that for that reason he supports an independent press in Kurdistan.

Mr Prime Minister, show us you meant it. Help us to keep the journalists in Kurdistan safe. Stop police harassing them, and beating them up. Join us in our campaign to improve the situation of the press in Kurdistan. It will enhance your name, in and outside of Kurdistan, where the criticism about the harsh treatment of the press is growing. But most importantly, it will help to give Kurdistan the press that it needs, and deserves. A responsible press that works for the Kurdish people.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Don't get ill in Iraq

Getting ill - don't do it in Iraq. The Iraqi physicians that once were welcomed all over the world for they knowledge and skills, are no longer available. Either they left the country, and did not return, or they have retired. And they are badly missed: healthcare in Iraq of today is a disaster.

A Dutch friend who is specialised in internal medicine already brought the message home, a couple of years ago. She saw the books that medical students at the universities in Kurdistan are using. ,,Those books are years old, they mention medicines as being developed that have been in the market for ages'', she told me. She went to a meeting with Kurdish specialists who watched on a big screen an operation that was taking place elsewhere in the same building. The surgeon who was conducting the operation joined them for a while. When he went back into the operating theatre to finish the job, he did so without scrubbing again or changing his clothes.

What is wrong with the medical profession in Iraq? It's not only outdated education. It is also the fact that doctors here think they know it all, once they finished their study. Keeping up with the developments outside by reading about them - as doctors do elsewhere in the world - hardly is done. The education system is to blame: young people who score well in high school are allowed to become medical doctors. It is the points they have scored that count, not their state of mind - if  they care about and want to heal people.

The result is clear and rather disastrous: medical doctors who cannot make a secure diagnosis, patients who shop around because they do not trust their doctors. At the same time, Kurdistan does not have family doctors. Patients who need care, go to the first aid post in the hospital. Hospitals are old and dirty, and do not offer much in care: there are hardly enough nurses and family members have to take care of patients.

Yet medical doctors who had their education abroad and return, have problems finding a job. Or they have problems doing the work for which they were educated. Because the older doctors who did not update their knowledge, eye them with contempt. The newcomer knows more, is better educated, and if given the chance might badly dent their status. In stead of thinking of how patients can profit, it is all about keeping their position and making sure these clever newcomers cannot become a threat.

Patients are discharged even though treatment has not been finished. Every so often you will meet people who still have the tube for a drip in their hand - sent out, sometimes even back to work. Driving their taxi, washing dishes - not realising that the tube can be the cause of an infection. I have seen people pushed around in wheelchairs and into air-planes who were too ill to move - who should not be out of their sickbed.Often their family members got so disgusted with the bad care that they decided to take the patient to a hospital in Iran, Jordan or Turkey, where they know the care is better.

In Sulaymaniya the biggest businessman in town is in the process of building a professional hospital, with care on an European level. Because of the low level of education in Kurdistan, part of the plan is to train all the staff in Europe before the hospital will be opened.

Bad healthcare can be deadly. In only a few weeks time a number of my staff members were confronted with that tragic fact. Two of their family members involved died after a stroke that did not get the care it deserved. Mistake was followed by mistake. They mourn the loss of a beloved one, knowing that he/she could have been saved, if only good healthcare was available.

Foto:Eddy van Wessel

Yet medical staff in Iraq hardly gets punished for their mistakes. Kurds know why - and even if it is not true the fact that they speak about this so openly shows how bad the situation is. They say that the special medical council which has to decide about punishment for doctors making mistakes hardly ever does so, because colleagues are keeping each other out of the wind.'If you wash my hands now, I will wash yours later', is the concept.

One of the problems in medical care in Iraq is that not enough hands get washed. That to many doctors care more about their income and status than about their patients. That the government does not have a good policy to make sure healthcare is up to standard. But then: what can you expect in a country where the president and other high politicians go abroad when they need medical treatment?

This article was also published on Ak News, which lead to this reaction:

In your article dated 2nd of February 2012 entitled (Don’t get ill in Iraq), there were many points that need to be highlighted to deliver your message in an honest, clear, genuine and fruitful way.
To start with, I do agree with the you that the current situation of medicine in Iraq is some how disastrous, but let us be more accurate.
First of all the place your are talking about is (Kurdistan) which is geographically part of Iraq, but if we talk about the medical regulations, inspections and administration of health issues and academic teaching are all run by the authorities in the territory (ministry of Health and higher education) independently from the central government in Baghdad since 1991. I believe we need to get a third party to investigate the case that you mentioned in the article to give the right for all parties. Although they were independent in running their issues for more than 20 years they are still lagging behind in medicine because they did not stick to the mother medical school and medical council in (Baghdad)/ Iraq.
Secondly, the problem in Iraq with medicine and doctors is the poor administration of rules and regulations but the efficiency of those medical doctors can only be judged by independent professionals in the world. We as medical doctors can not judge and criticise writers performance superficially, because it is not our carrier or speciality. The bad practice that was caught does not reflect what is happening in all parts of Iraq, similarly when there is a misconduct in Europe or USA nobody says it is bad in Europe or in the states (if we want to count the medical faults in Europe and USA I can provide you with information that can absolutely fill more than one article).
Thirdly, when writers and media rises such issues, they should look for causes and then solutions.
In regard to the causes you name it (uncountable), from the previous regime foolish decisions to embargo and blockade to the deterioration in the infrastructure and services in the country over the last 2 decades, on top of all that comes the improper strategies implemented in running the higher education and health issues due to many logistic factors that have a direct and indirect links to the political agendas.
We may suggest simple solutions that need some sort of changes in the attitude to get back to the morals of medical doctors that were lost due to the in appropriate way of exposure to the advanced world in terms of changing the medicine into business (with all my respect to the business people because I believe even business has rules, regulations and morals) but what is happening in medicine is simply a mess in everything that needs to be reviewed by the higher authorities and most importantly by the people themselves to be satisfied with the medical service provided in the whole country and not Kurdistan alone!!
Thank you for pinpointing this case, we aim to build the country and kurdistan as part of it, and not merely criticise for the sake of criticism but to correct improve and develop.

Dr. Rafid Salim Jabir, Malaysia

And another reaction: 
Thank you for your article ( Dont get ill in iraq )
every thing you wrote in article is right .. . and there are more
i wish we can keep in touch with you , i dont exclude ourselves from that bad situation , we are part of it .
what do you expect from country where the ministry of health said by official announcement that Iraq is in need of 7000 ( seven thousands ) anaesthesiologists and all what Iraq has now is 360  !
Thank you again

Dr. Haider abbass

graduated by Iraqi Board program at 2008