Media's role in elections a hot topic in Iraqi Kurdistan

03 May 2009

Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan Region - A World Press  Freedom Day conference organized in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday and sponsored by UNESCO and UNDP, saw a lively and rich debate on press freedom issues in the context of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the upcoming regional and national elections.
 
“A free and fair press is the very foundation of a well-functioning democracy, as well as the continued development and progress of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan,” Mr. Vehbi Selmani, acting head of UNDP’s Erbil office, told participants.
 
“Helping Iraq with developing a strong and vibrant press on both the regional and national level remains one of the key priorities of UNDP in Iraq,” he added.
 
As many of the country’s press outlets are owned by political parties or entities with links to politicians, news stories on political issues are often one-sided or inaccurate. The number of such articles is expected to increase in the run-up to the regional vote in Iraqi Kurdistan on July 15 and the national parliamentary elections expected in December.
 
Together with other UN agencies, UNDP is supporting Iraqi election authorities in establishing a framework for media handling, as well as organising several workshops and a major information campaign for journalists on their rights and responsibilities when reporting on popular votes. UNDP also worked with the country’s Communications and Media Commission (CMC) to update its Code of Conduct for covering elections.
 
The Erbil conference was organised by the independent national Iraqi news agency Aswat al-Iraq and sponsored by UNESCO and UNDP through a Spanish-funded programme to help develop Iraqi media.
 
The gathering fostered a healthy and passionate debate with a strong consensus in favour of a more independent and unbiased Iraqi media and better access to official information for journalists. While the Iraqi constitution enshrines freedom of expression, it is silent on the right to access official information for reporters and the public in general.
 
The participants, totalling over a hundred of the region’s leading journalists, politicians, media experts and officials, stressed in their interventions the importance of neutral and professional reporting during the upcoming rounds of regional and national elections.
 
The strong consensus resulted in the setup of an ad-hoc body to monitor the press coverage of the regional Iraqi Kurdistan elections, with the aim of curbing the most serious partisan excesses. A document, named the Erbil Declaration and reflecting the participants’ support of a free and independent press and better access to official information for journalists, was also adopted by the conference.
 
A similar event organised by the international media development NGO IREX and supported by UNESCO and UNDP took place in Baghdad, featuring panel debates with senior officials and media representatives and with over 500 visitors during a full day of events.
 
UNDP has maintained an office and a team of experts in Erbil to serve the Iraqi Kurdistan region for several decades, currently implementing a portfolio of some 20 different development projects.