Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region has long had a reputation in the west as a bastion of stability in a chaotic region plagued by religious and ethnic tension. Yet despite the oil-rich region’s close ties to the U.S. and billions of dollars in foreign investment, Iraqi Kurdistan is no easy place to be a journalist.
One example of this is the experience of journalist and blogger Kamal Chomani. Chomani, who wrote for local and international news outlets including the Kurdistan Tribune and Al-Monitor, was a frequent critic of Kurdistan’s two entrenched parties: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of regional President Nechirvan Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani.
Chomani had been threatened as far back as 2011, when he escaped abduction by Kurdish security forces intent on quashing dissent during the Arab Spring by sprinting into a supermarket. Yet it was not until political tensions spiked again in 2017 during Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum, a vote Chomani had criticised and that the international community did not recognise, that he felt his situation had become untenable.
“There were death threats every day on social media and messages labeling me as a traitor,” he says, in an interview with Global Journalist.
Chomani, who lived in the Kurdish region’s capital Erbil, realised he either had to quit criticising the Kurdish leadership or leave. With the help of Germany’s Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People, he left last year.
A former correspondent for the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, the 34-year-old is now a nonresident fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and lives in Hamburg. He told his story to Global Journalist’s Franziska Stadlmayer. Below, an edited version of their conversation:
Global Journalist: Tell us about your work in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kamal Chomani: When the Kurdistan region was founded in 1991 and recognized by Iraq in 2003, many Kurdish youth, writers and journalists were not satisfied with the political system. We thought our dreams of freedom and justice had been stolen.
I was one of those young Kurds who tried to push reforms and make our dreams come true. For example, in Kurdistan we have no national army or national security forces. We have these forces that are linked to the political parties and two families. The Peshmerga [militia] forces fought for freedom before 1991 but turned against the people after the liberation of Kurdistan. For me as a journalist and Kurd this is not acceptable.
I have written about this and the misconduct of the ruling parties. During the fake referendum on independence, I criticized why the referendum should not be held at this time. This was not accepted by the ruling [KDP] party and I was called a traitor, like many other friends at home and abroad. I also criticized the oil policy of the Kurdish regions, which is more the policy of the KDP because it serves the government and the [ruling] families more than the region.
GJ: What kind of intimidation did you experience?
Chomani: Sometimes you just got phone calls – you don’t know from whom. And sometimes people tell you indirectly that writing this will eventually put your life in danger.
Sometimes, the security forces knock at your door at 11 p.m. For instance, [one evening] I had guests at my home at 11 p.m. The security forces came to home, forcing the guests to leave my house.
Sometimes it is a kidnapping attempt. I have some [sources] within the institutions and those people warned. They’d contact you to meet you secretly and tell you something is going on: that you should take care of yourself, that you should not use your car, always be guarded by your friends or your family…I was given such kind of warning before, but I never took that seriously until during the  referendum. This time, I was very much afraid to be targeted.
GJ: They also tried to kidnap you?
Chomani: A few times. The last time before I came here was probably in March 2018. There was a protest in [the town of] Choman and I was there as a journalist. The protesters were about 50 teachers and [government] employees who demanded their salaries because the government had not paid them for months. I wanted to report and be a voice for them. But then the head of the security forces of the KDP came to me, and called me the person behind the protest.
The leader of the Asayhish [security agency] took my hand…he told me to either leave or they would beat me very terribly.
Then he started pulling my hands and took me with him while two other guys, bodyguards, came. The demonstrators held my belt from behind and started shouting against the Asayhish guys. They began to shout that they were ready to fight back. When people realized that something very serious was going on, other people came because their family members were there. I was lucky [the security agents] couldn’t take me with them.
GJ: Was that the only time?
Chomani: In 2011, I was with a colleague in Erbil and we were meeting a high official of Kurdistan, just to discuss what is going on in the region. But there were some people following me and my friend and they tried to kidnap us.
They stopped their car very fast, came out and told me: “Hey man, come with us.”
They had Kalashnikovs, big sticks and pistols in hand.
We ran away and we were lucky. They chased us running but they could not hurt us because there were people in the street. Somehow we got to a supermarket almost 100 meters away. When people came out of the supermarket, we were able to go in, into the crowd, and they stopped.
That was in 2011 during the Arab Spring when the KDP and the PUK were kidnapping some activists – critics and journalists. They were taking them outside the city, beating them to death and then throwing them somewhere. This happened to several people…2011 was a dark time.
GJ: Why did you leave Iraqi Kurdistan?
Chomani: Since 2006 I have been a critical journalist writing about freedom of speech, corruption in the oil sector, democracy and human rights violations – also about the nationalist rhetoric of the KDP and the crimes the KDP and PUK committed during the [1994-1998] civil war. This has not been accepted easily…I was able to resist all those years of death threats and kidnapping attempts.
But during the referendum in 2017, I was more vocal. We were very few people inside the Kurdistan region who had a critical view towards the referendum – against the timing and the legality and the purposes. We were labeled a group of traitors.
There were death threats every day on social media and messages labeling me as a traitor. If I stayed in the Kurdistan region, my life would have been at risk. I would have had to stop writing critically or comprise on what I believe in. Therefore I decided to leave…better to be exiled abroad than feeling exiled at home.
GJ: How did you do that?
Chomani: I reached to some international organizations [to tell them] that I needed a break. Reporters Without Borders got in touch with one of the organizations here in Germany, it’s called the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People. It’s a program that gives one year of scholarship here in Hamburg and during this year you will be able to continue your work while living in a safe place. I am going to do a master’s program soon and return with more knowledge.
Index on Censorship partner Global Journalist is a website that features global press freedom and international news stories as well as a weekly radio program that airs on KBIA, mid-Missouri’s NPR affiliate, and partner stations in six other states. The website and radio show are produced jointly by professional staff and student journalists at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, the oldest school of journalism in the United States.
Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.
Join our mailing list (or follow us on Twitter or Facebook). We’ll send you our weekly newsletter, our monthly events update and periodic updates about our activities defending free speech. We won’t share, sell or transfer your personal information to anyone outside Index.