The Organised Suppression of Kurdish Journalists in Iran
19 Aug 2015
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It has been nearly 120 years since the first Kurdish newspaper, ‘Kordestan’ was published – a publication which did not in come into existence here in Kurdistan, but in exile in Egypt, its later life being in Europe. In 1909, ‘Kordestan’ was banned from publishing by the Ottoman Empire. Despite the ban being placed over a century ago, with its founders and journalists having been arrested and prosecuted, it seems that even today the fate of Kurdish journalism is intertwined with that of ‘Kordestan’.
Regardless of the political power in place, what media activists in the four Kurdistan regions of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq have been put through in in the past century in terms of crackdowns and suppression does not significantly differ. Not only has each of these four countries pursued a policy of denial and obliteration to prevent Kurdish publications from operating, but each has placed further restrictions on all other activities in the community using the excuse of ethnic and national assimilation. Policies that went as far as mass killing, forced migration, and regional demographic modifications in the region.
Considering the additional oppressing impact of the media on suppressed communities and linguistic minorities, the presence of any voice disputing the official policies of the state, in practice transforms the media into a function challenging the authority. This means that the trend is towards maximum suppression of the minority language and denial of permits to any publication other than that in the official language. More often than not, these states cannot tolerate the presence of such publications in other countries and will do everything in the power obstruct their work. For example, after 11 years of broadcast, a Kurdish programme from Radio Cairo was shut down in 1968, due to collective negotiations and pressures by the Iranian, Iraqi, and Turkish authorities. The Republic of Turkey made every effort to close down the Kurdish service of Radio Yerevan. More recently, owing to pressures from Turkey, TV channels such as MED TV, MEDYA TV and Roj TV, have been shut down in EU member countries.
Due to regional and international conflicts, and the new order imposed on the Middle East following the Treaty of Lausanne, the geography of Kurdistan has always been under attack. Additionally, political anarchy, and regional and international interventions have played a pivotal role in the political structures of this geographical area. In addition to the increasing crisis and instability in the regions of Kurdistan, the added pressure is taking its toll on political, civil and media activists.
Unlike state media, the Kurdish media has come into existence under suppression, reflecting the needs of the Kurdish community: firstly, as a response to the need to keep a banned language alive, and secondly, as a tool for regenerating challenge in political, social and cultural spheres.
A brief glance at the history of movements in Kurdistan, and one can see a continuity in the Kurdish media from the urban setting to the rural one. From the outset of the previous century, the rise and development of Kurdish media activism has been directly proportionate to the decline in central power of said states. Consequently, every time the state has taken a few steps back for any reason, the Kurdish media activists have moved a few steps forward.
On the one hand, unlike Turkish, Farsi and Arab speaking publications, Kurdish ones obviously lack the support and facilities provided by the government. They come into being in a state of repression, denial and discrimination and continue to exist merely through innovations coming from the heart of Kurdish communities. On the other hand, not only have they been the voice of resistance of the Kurdish people in a climate of repression, but also acted as tribune, albeit unsanctioned and small, to reflect the voices of other minority and supressed communities.
Publications in Kurdish prior to the Islamic Revolution
In spite of the studies and research conducted over the past two decades, there is no accurate information in regards to the exact time and place of the first Kurdish publication in Iran. Researchers used to consider the weekly paper of “Rooji Kord” (Kord Daily?) to be the first Kurdish publication in Iran. This weekly paper was established in the early 1920s by Molla Mohammad Toorjan Zadeh in the midst of the Simko Shikak revolt. However, recent findings have confirmed that “Shahab Sagheb” and “Bisotoon” were published during 1906 and 1907, and “Tamadon” was published between 1903 and 1905 in Kermanshah and Sanandaj, making these the first publications in Iran in the Kurdish language.
In any case, all publications in the Kurdish language, before or after the World War I, have come into being as a result of regional crises, inefficient central governments, and numerous revolts in Kurdistan. Ironically, these publications lived a short life once stability was established. During World War II, and both before and after the Republic of Kurdistan was declared, there were a few Kurdish publications such as “Rooznameh Kurdistan” (Kurdistan Newspaper), belonging to Kurdistan’s Democratic Party’s Media Department. The operations of this bilingual publication (Kurdish/Farsi) came to a halt for a few years after the downfall of the Republic of Kurdistan.
Once Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s authority was stabilized after the World War II, and up until the late 1950s, no Kurdish publication operated inside Iran. Many Kurdish political activists and journalists fled the country due to various existing circumstances, many of whom started working in Kurdish media in other countries. Nevertheless, the Iranian government established the Kurdish service of Radio Sanandaj in 1952 in order to diminish public criticism and dissatisfaction, which was later extended to the Kurdish services of Radio Tehran, Kermanshah, Urumieh and Khorasan. It must be noted that not a single publication had the permit to work or print in the Kurdish language, and it was only after the early 1970s, following substantial crackdowns in Kurdistan that a weekly publication entitled “Kurdistan” was founded in Tehran, the only audience of which was foreign embassies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Before the Islamic Revolution of Iran, a large number of Kurdish journalists and writers were arrested and spent years behind bars on charges such as ‘membership of Marxist and anti-Monarchy groups’.
The Revolution and the Islamic Republic
After the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and as a result of the newly-open political space, numerous Kurdish publications became active. Once the Islamic Republic became established and following the retreat of the Komalah and Democratic parties to rural and mountainous areas, all these publications were shut down. Of course, some continued to publish from the mountains or outside Iran with the support of these parties. After the Iran-Iraq war and a limited opening in political space, many media activists attempted to legally publish materials in Kurdish language by referring to articles from the Iranian Constitution.
During recent years, the Iranian state has set up a radio and a television channel for each of its provinces, mainly because of the rise in number of Kurdish channels on satellite TV aired from Europe and Kurdish regions. However, based on internal memos of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), these channels are required to produce 40% to 50% of their programmes in Farsi language.
From late 1990s, when the Reformist Administration came to power, the media climate of the whole country was immensely transformed. During those years, a number of newspapers and weeklies were issued permits in Kurdistan. Despite this, at the same time as the whole country, or even slightly earlier, the decline of other Kurdish media started. Within just a few years, more than 20 daily, weekly and quarterly Kurdish publications such as Aso, Karaftoo, Payam e Mardom, Payam e Kurdistan Ashti, Rojhalat, Hawar, Rasan, Didgah, Roojameh, Rave and Ayeneh were closed down. These publications were shut down by the Press Supervisory Board and the Judiciary on account of charges such as “actions against national security by publishing false materials”, “propaganda against the state” and “affiliation with foreign countries and the opposition”. In addition to these, many Kurdish student publications also had their permits suspended and closed down by security officials over the same period.
Despite the Press Law clearly calling for all media-related trials to be public and in the presence of a jury, most of these Kurdish publications were closed down without any such hearings being held, merely by the order of the Press Supervisory Board. A few permits were also suspended in trials held behind closed doors and without the presence of a jury.
In addition to the mass closure of Kurdish publications in Kurdistan, many journalists and media workers were prosecuted, arrested and eventually imprisoned on charges such as “actions against national security”, “propaganda against the state”, “spreading lies”, “disturbing public opinion”, “affiliation with foreign countries and opposition groups of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, and “smearing”.
These media workers are under extreme pressure by the security officials in writing about Kurdistan’s political issues, often to the point of self-censorship. In 2007, after state officials in Kurdistan could not suspend Karaftoo Weekly employing legal (judicial) procedures, they turned to the Press Supervisory Board of the Kurdistan province, closing it down under the pretext of “irregular publishing”. This goes to prove that the state does not support such rare publications at all.
Currently, at least four Kurdish journalists, Mohammad Sedigh Kaboodvand, Adnan Hassanpour, Khosrow Kordpour and Masood Kordpour are behind bars. In the last 10 years, at least fifty Kurdish journalists and media workers have fled the country and sought asylum in European and American countries due to pressures by security forces.
Today’s environment and laws imposed on the Kurdish media do not differ much in essence from those faced by Meghdad Badarkhan, the founder of Kurdistan’s first newspaper more than a century ago. The issue of Kurdistan remains one of the most complicated problems in the Middle East, as what arises from the heart of this community is still seen as a security issue. As a result, media activists and journalists who strive to work despite all impediments eventually become victims of this environment because they are considered a matter of security.
Ammar Goli – Journalist and member of NNSROJ editing board