ARBIL, Iraq, (IPS) – Fruit and vegetable vendors push their carts around a street market in Arbil, the seat of governance of Iraqi Kurdistan. The city is very different from Baghdad. Kurdish is spoken here, and written large on shop windows. Also, there is no visible American troop presence.
The streets are patrolled not by American soldiers in tanks and Humvees, but by Kalashnikov-carrying Peshmerga guerrillas on foot patrol.
Since the creation of the Kurdish autonomous area in 1991, Kurds have been doing everything they can to create their own society. But that does not mean they get their news in Kurdish.
Kurds of all ages crowd around the television in Arbil’s Machko Cafe as al-Jazeera broadcasts news of Iraq’s interim constitution.
“A big reason we are watching al-Jazeera and al-Arabia is the fact that they focus on breaking news,” says 63-year-old writer Kerem Sheharizah. “Recently there is another channel opened by America called al-Hurra (the freedom) and we can benefit from that by getting another perspective.”
Kurdish broadcasters have been unable to build a network of reporters to compete with al-Arabia and al-Jazeera. That is partly because Kurds do not have as much money as their counterparts in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates where the satellite news channels are based.
But it is also because Kurdish broadcasters have a different goal. The nightly news on Kurdistan Television is essentially a summary of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani’s day.
“Mr. Masoud Barzani has so many activities and he visits so many places and we have to broadcast it,” KTV station manager Shiwan Amurr Yusuf says.
“This channel is related to the Kurdistan Democratic Party so although we have freedom to do what we want, we also have to bring the viewer all the breaking news about this party,” he adds.
Masoud Barzani’s KDP effectively serves as the government of half of Northern Iraq. The other half of Iraqi Kurdistan is controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which owns and controls the only other Kurdish television station in the area, KurdSat.
PUK members say the party has good reason to control the news broadcast on KurdSat. Hakim Umar from the PUK’s foreign office says the media is a major tool for propaganda in keeping Iraq from splitting apart.
“If you let the people talk themselves, they will ask for independence from Iraq,” he says. “But the media that has been talking to them for many years helps them come back to federalism because federalism is the best way for us. That’s the meaning of Kurdish media. We got a message for our people that it is the right thing to live in Iraq with federalism.”
It is hard to find people here willing to talk openly against either of the ruling Kurdish parties. While nowhere near as oppressive as Saddam’s regime, the U.S.-backed Kurdish leaders of Northern Iraq have virtually banned dissent.
The area even has its own secret police, the Asayeech, to keep people in line. Kurds outside Iraq are often critical of this, but most of them see the current leadership by the two armed factions as a temporary step on the road to ultimate separation from Iraq.
“We’re not as dumb as people think we are, or as dumb as certain Kurdish leaders think we are,” says Kani Xulam, director of the Washington-based American Kurdish Information Network, who favours independence. “Federalism may be the only option now, but you need to give the people the benefit of the doubt and say ‘we’ll have to ask them what it is they want.'”
Xulam points out that a small Kurdish newspaper dedicated primarily to cultural news opened recently in Northern Iraq, the first media voice that is independent of the local Kurdish leaders. He hopes it will be the first of many, not the last of its kind.