The Kurdish issue has experienced a massive surge in media coverage across the past ten years, particularly following the military campaign to defeat ISIS in which Kurdish forces in both North and East Syria and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq played a prominent, and much-publicised, role.
But this heightened scrutiny by the global media has brought fresh challenges for the Kurdish regions. On the one hand, coverage has often been simplistic, voyeuristic and marked by an exclusive focus on the military campaign against ISIS. On the other, Western journalists and media attention have contributed to the emergence of a warped media sphere where some local media workers face exploitation with low pay and little protection, while international journalists and other locals earn vast sums of money on the basis of their work in volatile war zones. The situation is further complicated by the politicisation of media coverage and lack of independent, local media on both sides of the Iraqi-Kurdish border.
Dastan Jasim is a Doctoral Researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA). In a paper which she delivered at the recent Kurdish Studies Conference in London, she analysed these challenges in the context of an unregulated labour market for media workers in Kurdistan, drawing on conversations with media workers from both Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Selected highlights of her conversation with Medya News’ Matt Broomfield follow, and you can watch the whole interview above.
What are the upsides and downsides of increased global media attention to the Kurdish issue?
One of the biggest traumas in Kurdish history is that a lot of the major genocides, in the 80s and the 90s, were not really reported on for political reasons and also because of isolation. For example, if you ask people when there was a war in Turkey, they would not naturally remember the mass destruction of villages and genocidal operations that happened there. Many people wouldn’t remember a lot of the stuff Saddam Hussein did, if it wasn’t for the Kurds opening up Saddam’s archives to the world. When the Halabja genocide happened, many people denied it happened.
But what we see, and what I talk about in my paper, is that in 2014 after the war against ISIS, is it was the first time there was this huge influx, not just because of ISIS, but also after the beginning of the Iraq war. With ISIS, you had a group also attacking people in the West, so it was also their battlefield. What I argue is that a lot of people were offering their services not necessarily in a regulated way where they have a specific income, specific insurance…
A lot of people that I met are actually journalists themselves, but not regarded as such or taken seriously as such, but offer their services as fixers, drivers, translators, or all of it at the same time. What happened is that after 2014 you have a very deregulated market where a lot of people are in a precarious situation, and are dealing with a lot of racism, internal and external ‘hierarchisation’, as I call it.
How has this approach affected the internal social fabric and media sphere in Rojava?
It’s not only to do with how the West publishes things. We have the inherent problem that as Kurds, as a stateless nation, it is almost always the case that party political structures proceed actual, neutral institutions. They find they have to be aligned to some group to do their work, and if they don’t, they’re going to have problems with access.
This affects how we access news on both sides of the border, to be honest. Those who follow media specifically covering Rojava get a specific image of Rojava. If you compare Arabic and English-speaking media covering Rojava, you see very different angles, ideological angles. The problem is that because there is a vacuum of information, people, especially in the West, are mostly looking for sensationalist things. So of course they are not interested in a low-intensity war like the Turkish drone war in Rojava. They’d rather take another tour in Hol camp, look at ISIS, look at the ISIS fighters, and for each and every one of these visits the SDF have to make so many security checks. All of that for yet another piece of coverage of a prison where we all know the situation, where attacks on prisoners aren’t covered. So I would say there is an interior and an exterior bias.
In Bashur, it’s an even more difficult situation. Only specific things are reported on. If you look at Bashuri media itself, it only covers certain regions and not others. So for example we have the case of the Badinan prisoners, going on for years now. These are opposition activists in prison for their critical reporting, and it’s almost impossible to report on this and gain an audience, because you have much bigger audiences that work in favour of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and want to paint it positively.
Are there positive steps that can be taken to strengthen independent media and more productive international reporting in the region?
I can’t manipulate people to report differently on Kurdistan. I don’t believe in that, and the best way is to do good reporting yourself. That is possible, and there are a lot of people capable of that, that know the languages.
The bigger problem, and what I really want to talk about in this paper, is that the people who are in this deregulated market and do this work are in danger. They have to go into areas where ISIS has control, where they are spied upon, they get a lot of threats, send into areas that aren’t easily accessible, and also there is the material situation – a lot of these people aren’t paid well, they have no insurance, and no means to make a living.
You recently shared some of these ideas at a conference in London. Are there similar critiques to be levelled at the academic sphere?
I think a lot of people felt ‘seen’ – and in a bad way! A lot of academics that are very much used to going to the region and using students, people and informal connections that they know, in this Kurdish manner of – ‘can you do me a favour’? But this approach is a specific market [relation] in itself, because in Kurdish society, if you ask for a favour, you know someone will do something back. If people don’t want money, you find some intangible way to give something back – write an application letter for them, for example. But most people didn’t think about this reciprocity. Because they are white people going to the Middle East, they feel they deserve help.
I also talked to some people that were saying it’s very necessary, and they see a different class difference between people that offer their work, for different reasons, on different ideological sides, I have seen that people do not want to talk about specific things. There is an attitude that ‘there is a war right now, these things can come later’, but that is exactly the experience in Bashur, which we do not want to repeat…. In the 1990s, [following genocide and atrocities against the Kurds], not taking care of political issues led to a civil war which was, some people say, even worse.