Essay

MEDIA BLACKOUT

Are Kurdish lives somehow less valuable than Palestinian and Iraqi ones?

MICHAEL PETROU August 29 2005
Essay

MEDIA BLACKOUT

Are Kurdish lives somehow less valuable than Palestinian and Iraqi ones?

MICHAEL PETROU August 29 2005

MEDIA BLACKOUT

Essay

Are Kurdish lives somehow less valuable than Palestinian and Iraqi ones?

MICHAEL PETROU

HERE’S A STORY about an uprising in the Middle East you probably haven’t heard of. For more than a month, riots and violent protests have swept through the Kurdish areas of northern Iran, resulting in a government crackdown that has killed up to 20 people and injured hundreds more. The unrest began on July 9, when Kurdish activist Shwane Ghaderi was killed by Iranian security forces in Mahabad. He was allegedly shot, dragged through the streets and tortured to death. Demonstrations against Iran’s theocratic dictatorship erupted immediately and spread across the region.

At least 10 Kurdish demonstrators were reportedly killed when the government deployed helicopter gunships against protesters who had attacked a military outpost with rocks and sticks and ransacked government offices in the city of Saqqez. Residents of most Kurdish cities in the region called a general strike in a show of solidarity. Shops closed and streets were empty. All this information comes from Iranian exiles and members of dissident groups, who are in contact with Iranian Kurds on the ground and who have passed on their reports, digital photos and lists of the dead. Iran’s state news agency acknowledges the turmoil, but says that the unrest is the result of “anarchists” and “hooligans.”

I am almost certain that everything I have related here is true. It comes from a variety of reliable sources and from people who have family in the area. But I can’t compare these reports to those from traditional Western media outlets for the strange reason that, as near as I can tell, no Western reporter has visited the area.

I partially understand why this is the case.

Iran, like most dictatorships, assigns a government “minder” to shadow foreign correspondents in the country and to control whom the journalist talks to. Most correspondents don’t like to mention this in their dispatches. It mins their allure as rugged

and independent truth-seekers.

Journalists who rub a dictatorial government the wrong way may find their visas revoked and their employer’s bureau shut down. In the end, it’s easiest just to do what you’re told. And if you’re told not to cover the deadly violence in Kurdistan, well, maybe there’s a press conference about Iran’s nuclear energy program you can report on instead.

I think this explains in part the media

blackout about what’s happening in Iranian Kurdistan, but it doesn’t explain everything.

The bigger problem is an uglier one. Some causes, and some people, are fashionable to Western journalists and to the public at large, and some are not. Imagine for a moment that 20 unarmed Palestinians had been killed by Israeli soldiers in the last month, with hundreds more injured and scores arrested. Is it even conceivable that this would not be front-page news? Already, photographers working in the Middle East have to work hard to avoid getting other photographers in their photos of stone-

throwing Palestinian children. The only photos of the unrest in Iran come from local residents.

And what of the so-called “peace” protesters? Unarmed civilians are being shot down by government troops in helicopters. Where are Bianca Jagger and the rest of the celebrity activists? Where are the marching throngs with their “Free Iran!” and “Free Kurdistan!” banners? Are Kurdish lives somehow less valuable than Palestinian and Iraqi ones? Almost all Kurds are also Muslims. Where is the outrage? Or are the deaths of innocent Muslims only enraging when they are killed by Americans or Israelis?

Recently, an Iranian friend in London emailed me. “If only this Kurdish intifada had half the media coverage as the Palestinian one,” he wrote. He’s right. What’s happening in Iranian Kurdistan is important. Iran’s religious dictatorship is resented by many, perhaps most, Iranians. But it is particularly abhorrent to the country’s Kurds.

I visited Iranian Kurdistan for a few days last spring, staying with a family in a small village outside Mahabad. I had spent the previous two weeks in Iran’s major cities. Pro-government vigilantes had covered walls with spray-painted death threats against women who didn’t wear the hijab. Religious police decreed that even small plastic mannequins on display in pharmacy shop windows and revealing the body’s internal organs must have their genitals covered. Undercover government agents watched me and took my photograph when I met with student dissidents. And I never knew when my phone might be tapped.

After all this, Kurdistan felt like a breath of fresh air. Kurdish friends invited me to a wedding, where men and beautiful, uncovered women danced hand-in-hand in a riot of music and colour. “We Kurds dance together,” one man told me. “It causes some problems with the Islamic people, but I don’t care.”

That village is now under the heel of thousands of government troops who have been sent into the region to quell unrest, and the man from the wedding has no choice but to care what the Islamic people think. But it is still possible that the long-simmering anger that is erupting in Iranian Kurdistan will boil over elsewhere in the country as well. If this happens, the consequences will be monumental. Pity no one wants to talk about it now. lifl