February 28, 2021
This article was originally published on KurdistanSource.com
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq with a population of five and half million, has a vibrant media scene consisting of hundreds of media outlets across print, radio, TV and online. Data published in late 2017 by the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate states that 867 newspapers and magazines had government licenses at the time. Local and satelite TV channels run to more than one hundred. Whilst there is no official count of radio stations and news websites, combined they number in the several hundreds.
This considerable number of outlets does not equate to truly independent journalism or media. Press freedom and independent journalism in the KRI have moved backward in recent years. Only party-affiliated media outlets survived the economic crisis, while the handful of independent newspapers were forced to close. Consequently, media in the KRI is not independent, and is a long way from fulfilling a role as a fourth branch.
Most of the major outlets are funded by either of the two ruling parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – or wealthy individuals. Both parties officially finance dozens of partisan media organisations, while wealthy individuals with the KDP and PUK covertly fund large “shadow” networks.
This shadow media creates a complex information landscape in the KRI. While each network explicitly describes itself as free and independent, in reality they are mere propaganda tools, clearly pushing the political agenda of their backers.
Early 1990s: Partisan Media and War Propaganda
The establishment of the Kurdistan region heralded massive change in Iraqi Kurdish media. Theoretically, the industry was open to all. However, most researchers agree that in the first decade, only partisan media emerged.
During the civil war in the middle of 1990s, the KDP and PUK used media outlets almost exclusively for propaganda. The 1998 ceasefire was meant to end the era of media attacks, but any meaningful agreement failed as both parties continued to use the media as implements to attack their opponents. During the 1990s, it was rare to find real criticism of the leadership or administrative parties as publications on the whole stuck to partisan messaging.
By the beginning of 2000 both political parties had established their first satellite television channels: Kurdistan or KTV for the KDP, and Kurdsat for the PUK. Programming pushed their respective agendas and little else.
Early 2000: The Birth of Independent Papers
November 2000 saw the establishment of ‘Hawlati’ (The Citizen) in Sulaimani, the first non-partisan newspaper. Some of the Hawlati staff left the newspaper in 2006 to create Awene (The Mirror). It launched the following year as the second privately-owned newspaper in the KRI. In 2005 Nawa, an independent 24-hour radio station, began broadcasting in Sulaimani.
Unlike partisan media outlets, Hawlati, Awene and Nawa published a form of watchdog journalism, heavily criticising the KRG’s politics, reporting shortages in basic services, and investigating corruption and criticising misconduct in politics.
The main issues facing independent and opposition media are funding and the lack of freedom of information. There is no freedom of information in the KRG for journalists belonging to private and independent media institutions.
Post 2005: The Shadow Media Era
In a response to emerging social networking sites creating space for people to engage in politics and provide accessible platforms for independent journalism, the KDP and PUK established their new outlets – the ‘shadow media’ – to maintain their dominance of the industry.
Most media outlets are controlled by political parties and subsequently dogged by a reliance on funding from their backers, rather than revenue from sales and advertising. Shadow media, which is not required to be profitable, creates another major problem for independent media outlets as they claim independence while indirectly funded by political parties. The only two independent papers (Hawlati and Awene) halted their print versions to continue as websites in 2016. The economic crisis left privately-owned media outlets with no option but to shut down, while partisan-owned or shadow media survived the crisis, thanks to the support for their political backers.
Shadow media outlets promote themselves as independent, while they are covertly funded by political parties or wealthy individuals within the KDP and PUK. They were founded to create chaos in the media, casting doubt on the real independent media.
Current media ownership in KRI falls roughly into four groups: (1), media directly associated with the ruling political parties. (2), media indirectly associated with the ruling parties (the shadow media). (3), media groups directly associated with opposition parties. (4), private/independent media outlets.
Last Decade: Digitalisation and Emerging Social Media
As more people and households gain access to the internet in the KRI, online journalism is becoming more popular and posing a challenge to traditional media outlets. However, connectivity is unstable and not available everywhere, and is comparatively expensive. In rural areas where internet access remains limited due to the lack of infrastructure and computer literacy, TV remains the dominant media.
According to Data Portal, the number of internet users in Iraq, including the KRI, increased by 11 million (+55%) between 2019 and 2020 to 29.82 million by January 2020. While the Iraq’s population is just under 40 million, there are 21 million social media users which saw an increase of 1.9 million between April 2019 and January 2020. No specific figure for the KRI is available, but the region is between 15 to 20 percent of Iraq’s population. Internet access may be higher in the KRI, which enjoys better infrastructure, security and economic conditions than the rest of the country.
There is significant engagement in social media in the KRI. Rudaw Media Network, funded by the KRG President Nechirvan Barzani and considered shadow media, dominates Kurdish social media platforms. Only Rudaw’s Kurdish (Sorani) Facebook Page has more than 3.8 million followers, and its Instagram has more than 2 million in a region with a six million population.
KRG’s two-faced policy:
Respect press on paper, kill journalists on the ground
Following the KRI’s establishment in early 1992, dozens of daily newspapers, weekly magazines and local television channels were established amid the region’s civil war and economic hardship. Since then the state of media in the KRI has seen progress in many areas – what remains the same are the challenges facing independent journalists and non-partisan media outlets.
A Press Law was passed by the Kurdistan Parliament in 2007. The law states that journalists may not be arrested in any professional circumstances and no media outlet shall be closed down. However, the law is not fully implemented as political parties use “vaguely worded laws … that allow prosecutors to bring criminal charges for opinions they object to” Human Rights Watch has observed. In a letter to the Iraqi government and the KRG, eight international and local organisations, including HRW and Amnesty International, demanded the end of immunity for murders and said both Iraqi and Kurdish authorities are failing in their obligations under international and Iraqi law to bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes against journalists, activists, human rights defenders and protesters. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) points out that in the last decade several journalists have been arrested, tortured and even killed – mainly by partisan security forces loyal to the ruling PDK and PUK parties – while assailants have full immunity.
Between 2008-2016 four journalists were murdered because of their reporting: Soran Mama Hama, Sardasht Osman, Kawa Garmyani and Wedat Hussein. International human rights organisations and media watchdogs have recently criticised the KRG’s attitude towards press freedom. In 2020, both the KDP forces in the capital city of Erbil and the PUK forces in Sulaimani raided NRT’s offices and suspended its broadcast for weeks. The logic behind NRT’s shut down was that the channel’s coverage of protests amounted to “irresponsible behaviour”.
Who is funding what?
Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)
Change Movement (Gorran)
Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)
Kurdistan Justice Group (KJG)
New Generation (NG)
Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party (KSDP)
Communist Party of Kurdistan
Major Media Outlets:
Rudaw Media Network: Rudaw is based in the capital city of Erbil. It is a sprawling organisation with TV, Radio, digital media and podcast output. Rudaw began life as a weekly newspaper and the TV arm was launched in 2013. It is funded by Kurdistan president and deputy president of the KDP Nechirvan Barzani. Rudaw publishes news in Kurdish (Sorani and Kurmanci), English, Arabic and Turkish. Its digital media was recognised as having the best social media engagement in the Middle East in 2017. Compared to the other shadow media outlets, Rudaw is less partisan particularly by covering protests and tolerating people’s criticism of the government. It also covers the election campaigns of all major political parties. Some argue that the only red line for Rudaw is the Barzani family.
Kurdistan 24: Based in Erbil, K24 has TV, radio and digital media assets. It is fully funded by the KRG’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. K24 mostly reflects government policy and is unofficially the government’s media outlet. It broadcasts in Kurdish, English, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian. The Barzani friendly leanings of the channel are clear. For example, while the majority of media outlets covered recent anti-government protests, K24 claimed Erbil and Duhok were calm, and that people had refused to protest against the government.
Kurdistan TV: The first Kurdish satellite channel to launch inside the KRI in 1999, by the KDP. (The PKK-affiliated Med TV was the first Kurdish TV station. Launched in 1995, in the UK). The channel is based in Erbil and is officially KDP-owned.
Waar TV: A Badini dialect channel based in Duhok. Founded in 2013, Waar is also funded by KRI President Nechirvan Barzani.
Ava Media: An entertainment and music channel funded by KRG prime minster Masrour Barzani. It is part of the K24 project.
Zagros TV: Another KDP TV channel based in Erbil. Zagros was launched in Kurdish in 2007, but now broadcasts in Arabic. It targets the Arabic-speaking audience in Iraq, particularly in the Mosul, Kirkuk, Sinjar and Salahudin areas.
Korek TV: Tied to the telecommunications company Korek, owned by Masoud Barzani’s nephew Sirwan Barzani in Erbil. Korek broadcasts entertainment and music TV.
Kurdmax: An entertainment TV channel based in Erbil. It is believed to be funded by KDP senior official and former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari.
NET Kurd TV: The most popular entertainment satellite channel in Erbil. Avin Aso and Aramo are known to be the owner, but some believe it to be affiliated to the KDP.
Nalia Radio and TV (NRT): Funded by New Generation (NG) leader and businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid. Nalia is the name of Abdulwahid’s son. NRT was launched in 2011 during the anti-government protests, but security forces (affiliated with the PUK) torched its main offices. NRT claims to be an independent media outlet, but during the election campaign it morphed into the media propaganda arm of the NG party. NRT remains opposed to the government, as the NG party is still the opposition in parliament. The channel’s main offices are regularly raided and by both the KDP and PUK Asayish forces and its journalists arrested, particularly during demonstrations. The corporation also funds NRT2 (entertainment) NRT3 (kids) and NRT4 (religious).
Kurdsat and Kurdsat News: Based in Sulaimani, the media outlet is fully funded by late Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad of the ruling PUK. Kurdsat news tries to be neutral most of the time, but during election campaigns you can find the PUK’s logo on the screen. Kurdsat never covers the election campaigns of PUK rivals. The channel’s main agenda is well connected to the Talabani family, as a result during recent intra-PUK squabbles, one could not find the statements and views of opponents of Talabanis, i.e. the former deputies of secretary-general of the PUK Kosrat Rasul and Barham Salih.
Gali Kurdistan: GKsat TV is owned by the PUK, based in Sulaimani.
Khak: A local TV station based in Sulaimani and fully funded by the PUK. Khak has grown in recent years. It has expanded to include Khak TV1, Khak Movies, Khak Kids and Khak Music.
BMC TV: Local TV based in Sulaimani and widely believed to be funded by deputy prime minister of the KRG Qubad Talabani.
Kirkuk TV: Launched locally in 2004 in Kirkuk. In recent years it has upgraded to a satellite channel. It is fully funded by the PUK.
Upcoming TV: the PUK co-leader Lahur Talabani will be the latest to launch a TV channel in Sulaimani. Lahur is currently funding many small media outlets such as Zhyan TV and Millet press news website but the new station is positioned as a project equivalent in size and ambition to Rudaw and K24. Former Rudaw anchor Hiwa Jamal is the CEO of the channel. It is expected to start broadcasting in mid 2021.
Kurdish News Network: KNN was launched in Sulaimani in October 2008 by Wishe Company which was founded by the leader of Gorran (Change) Movement Nawshirwan Mustafa. The channel was the only opposition television outlet in Kurdistan at that time. KNN is currently closed, but expected to relaunch. Following Nawsherwan Mustafa’s death, the full ownership of the company has been transferred to his sons Chia and Nima.
Speda TV: Based in Erbil, it is funded by the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU). Its digital media publishes news in Kurdish and Arabic. As an opposition channel, it covers the daily news and protests. Speda also has charity branches.
Payam TV: Based in Sulaimani and fully funded by the Kurdistan Justice Group (KJG). To reflect its backer, the channel covers daily news in an opposition tone plus Persian late night dramas and religious rituals and talks.
Xebat: A daily newspaper published by the KDP in Erbil. Xebat has been printed since 1959. The paper has printed more than 6,000 editions since its first publication. Xebat has digital and social media platforms.
Altaakhi: An Arabic daily newspaper published by the KDP in Baghdad. It has published over 9,000 issues since 1967.
KDP.info: The KDP’s official news website.
Bas News: Bas began life as a newspaper, but the print version was closed early 2020. Now, Bas News publishes in five languages on its website. This outlet is also fully funded by PM Masrour Barzani.
Hawler: Newspaper and news website fully by the KDP and based in Erbil. Hawler is distributed for free across the KRI.
Wishe: Local Kurdish news website based in Erbil. Its main aim is to attack the KDP’s opponents and other political activists. Funded by PM Barzani.
Payamner: A local news website based in Erbil. It publishes news in Kurdish and Arabic, owned by the KDP.
Kurdistani Nwe: Based in Sulaimani, the daily newspaper has been published by the PUK since 1992 with over 8,000 editions. The paper also has digital and social media platforms.
PUK Media: The PUK’s official news website. It covers daily news and publishes the PUK’s party line and statements in Kurdish, English, Russian, Arabic, Turkish and Persian.
Xendan: Fully funded by the Iraqi president and leading PUK figure Barham Salih. Based in Sulaimani, Xendan was a significant organisation in the last decade. However, it is now only digital media and a local radio.
Nas News (KURD): Digital media publishing news in Arabic and Kurdish. It is affiliated with Iraqi president Barham Salih.
Zhyan Media: Zhyan is a TV and digital outlet, part of the PUK co-leader Lahur Talabani’s media corporation. Fully funded by Lahur and based in Sulaimani.
Millet Press: Website also fully funded by Jalal Talabani’s nephew Lahur, based in Sulaimani. Millet is a counter to some of the KDP’s similar offerings such as Bas news, Payamner and Wishe.
Esta: This news website and radio based in Sulaimani is funded by the co-leader of the PUK Bafel Talabani.
Vim: This newly established media foundation is funded by Bafel Talabani, and his wife Lava – daughter of senior PUK figure Mala Bakhtiar – supervises the foundation.
Chawder: It is a weekly newspaper, news website and platform which aims to separate religion from state. The project is fully funded by Mala Bakhtiar of PUK.
Azhans: A weekly newspaper and news website based in Sulaimani. It is funded by Lahur Talabani.
SNN: A local news website in Sulaimani, fully funded by the PUK.
Badinan Media Network: A satellite channel and news website owned by the PUK, aims at the speakers of Badini dialect in Duhok and parts of Mosul and Erbil.
Sbeiy: Fully funded by Gorran Movement founder’s sons Chia and Nma Nawsherwan Mustafa.
Peyser : This new website is part of Gorran’s new media output, which emerged following KNN’s closure. It is funded by Chia and Nma Nawshirwan Mustafa.
Zemen : A weekly newspaper and digital media which is also funded by Nma and Chia Nawshirwan Mustafa.
Roj News: A PKK-affiliated media outlet in the KRI.
Kurdiu: Funded by the KIU, and based in Erbil.
Dwarozh: This news website and local radio station is fully funded by Asia Cell owner and one of Kurdistan’s richest businessmen Faruq Mala Mustafa.
Xelk: It is fully funded by businessman Mala Yassin in Sulaimani.
Jamawar: Based in Sulaimani, this media outlet is fully funded by the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party.
Amozhgary TV: A religious satellite channel funded by the prominent Salafi figure Abdullatif Ahmad Salafi. It is widely believed to be funded by Saudi agents close to Salafism in Kurdistan.
Rega TV: The official TV channel of the Communist party of Kurdistan.
Biaban TV: Biaban Family, Biaban Movies, Music are all funded by the so-called private company Biaban which is based in Erbil and are believed to be close to KDP.
Rachlaken: News website based in Sulaimani. It is fully funded by leading PUK figure Kosrat Rasul Ali.
Avro newspaper: It is a Duhok-based weekly newspaper with a website, published in Badini dialect and aimed at duidence in Duhok province. it is fully funded by KDP.
GAV: a Duhok-based digital media with a website and social media pages, published in Badini dialect and aimed at an audience in Duhok province. it is funded by Idris Nechirvan Barzani.
Duhok TV: a local Duhok -based TV channel aimed at the audience in Duhok province. It is fully funded by KDP.
Chaw: it is a Sulaimani-based social media channel which broadcasts political and educational original videos. It is fully funded by Lahur Talabani.
Independent and semi-independent media outlets
Hawlati: It was the first independent Kurdish newspaper, established in early 2000. Hawlati was the most popular bi-weekly, and then daily newspaper until its closure in 2016 due financial difficulty. Its digital and social media platforms are still operating but with fewer readers. Some critics say after its relaunch, Hawlati is close to the PUK, especially Qubad Talabani.
Awene: First published in 2006 after some of Hawlati’s staff departed. Due to financial problems, its print version closed in 2016. Awene is an independent new media outlet funded by Awene Company with Asos Hardi as the leading figure. Some critics believe Awene is also close to the PUK.
Lvin: Considered to be the first independent magazine, originally published weekly in Sulaimani since 2006. However, in its early publications (2008) Lvin was part of KIU’s youth centre (YADC). It was only later that Lvin departed the KIU’s orbit. Despite its claim to be independent some critics believe in recent years Lvin is more critical of the KDP while giving a platform to PUK commentators close to the Talabani family to criticise the government. It is widely believed to receive funding from Lahur Talabani.
Peregraf: A local news website based in Sulaimani. It is an independent media outlet funded by international agencies including the German consulate in Erbil.
Draw Media: This newly established news website claims independence. However, it is believed to have gotten support from Gorran’s late figurehead Qadri Haji Ali.
Shar Press: Launched by former Hawlati Editor-in-chief Kamal Rauf in Sulaimani. It is believed to be independent, but some critics believe it to be supported by Barham Salih.
Spee media: Launched by former Awene editor-in-chief Shwan Muhammad. It is believed to be independent.
Radio Nawa: It is a popular radio station in Sulaimani, Erbil and Kirkuk. Despite its claim of independence, it is widely believed to be affiliated with the PUK.
Radio Dang: A local radio station in Kalar, Garmyan. It is believed to be fully independent.
Diplomatic Magazine: A newly established news website based in Sulaimani. It is believed to be affiliated with the KIU, and receive some funding from Barham Salih.
Kirkuk now: This multi-language news website based in Kirkuk was launched in 2011. Kirkuk Now claims that it is an independent media outlet which publishes news and events taking place in the disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad.
Westga: A local news website in Sulaimani. It is believed to be affiliated with deputy prime minister Qubad Talabani.
Kurdistanpost.nu: It is a very well-known opinionated website based in Europe. Its owners and most of its writers remain anonymous as the articles usually strongly criticise political parties and authorities.