By WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURG
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan -- In a report released on June 1, Iraq is ranked first on the 2011 impunity index of the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ). CPJ criticizes the Kurdish government for its unsatisfactory handling of the murder case of Kurdish writer Sardasht Osman in 2010.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has come in for fierce criticism by human rights and press organizations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), CPJ and Human Rights Watch in the last few months for the way it dealt with demonstrations and the media.
On May 30, the KRG responded to the allegations and didn’t deny violations by Kurdish security forces and ill-treatment of protestors.
“We can assure you, however, that these incidents have occurred despite KRG’s clear directives for strict adherence to the law and the rights of the protesters,” the KRG said in the statement.
CPJ’s impunity index includes Kurdistan and Iraq. The Index examines journalist murders that have occurred between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2010 and are still unsolved. Only those nations with five or more unsolved cases are included on the index, a threshold reached by 12 countries this year.
According to CPJ 93 journalists have been murdered in Iraq with their cases still unsolved. After a brief decline in targeted killings, journalist murders spiked in 2010. Among the four murder victims in 2010 was Sardasht Osman, a contributor to several news outlets in the Kurdistan region who had received numerous threats for reports that accused Kurdish officials of corruption, CPJ said.
“The investigation of his murder is emblematic of the deeply entrenched culture of impunity in Iraq. Authorities took no discernible action in the case until they faced intense international pressure. Then, investigators produced a cursory, 430-word report that vaguely accused Osman of having links to an extremist group that led to his killing. The report, which cited no supporting evidence for its claims, was widely denounced for lacking credibility and transparency,” noted CPJ.
The murder case was also criticized by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on May 3, the anniversary of Osman’s death. RSF questioned the Kurdistan Regional Government's determination to shed light on this murder and condemned the lack of transparency surrounding its investigation.
However Nerwan Azhee, a spokesman for the Kurdish security forces in Erbil, dismissed criticism of the investigation in an interview with the At War Blog of the New York Times on October 6, 2010. “They are all illegitimate and baseless accusations,” said Mr. Azhee, who said that Mr. Osman himself was not suspected of being a terrorist. “We have hard evidence to prove that he was killed by Ansar al-Islam.”
“The findings of the 2011 Impunity Index lay bare the stark choices that governments face: Either address the issue of violence against journalists head-on or see murders continue and self-censorship spread,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
Simon said that one way to prevent violence against journalists is tough enforcement of the law when a journalist faces threats.
“In order to reduce their ranking on the Impunity Index governments must do two things: Solve crimes and prevent further violence. One strategy for achieving this is to ensure that law enforcement responds aggressively when journalists are threatened,” said CPJ’s Simon. “Such threats need to be thoroughly investigated and, when appropriate, threatened journalists should be provided with security and assistance in temporary relocation.”
Last month, Frank Smyth, CPJ's Washington representative and journalist security coordinator, participated in a conference about press safety in Erbil, organized by the Independent Media Centre Kurdistan (IMCK) and praised the healthy debate by journalists, civilians and security officials about press safety. The IMCK has also trained officers of the Security Agency (Asayish) in both Suleymaniyah and Erbil on how to deal with journalists without violence. Despite all this, violations continue against journalists and that is what CPJ’s report aims to draw attention to.