With the talk “Journalism in Exile: Ayub Nuri on Freedom of Expression in Iraq”, this year’s Queen’s International Affairs Association (QIAA) Speaker Series has come to a close.
The talk was presented in collaboration with PEN Canada on Wednesday evening at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, and approximately 25 people were in attendance. PEN Canada is a chapter of PEN International, a writer’s organization formed in 1921. It focuses on human rights and literature and has around 140 centres in over 100 countries.
According to PEN representative Brendan de Caires, PEN’s philosophy is rooted in the belief that silencing one writer compromises the freedom of other writers. He said that the conception of a writer has changed over the last 30 or 40 years.
“The writers who get into trouble are no longer established cultural figures,” he said. “They tend to be much younger, they tend to be journalists, they can be bloggers, and the violence against them is no longer confinement – it is murder, very often successive murder.”
“One of the paradoxes is that freedom and democratization actually doesn’t make places safer, it makes them far more violent.”
Ayub Nuri, the featured speaker at the event, is the editor in chief of online Kurdish newspaper Rudaw English and a participant in PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile program.
Nuri’s interest in journalism began during his work as a translator with television, radio and newspaper reporters. He moved to Baghdad from Kurdistan to pursue work as a journalist.
He said that after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Iraq, there was a peaceful year for freedom of expression – in the two to three months following the overthrow, there was a steep rise in the number of Baghdad’s media outlets.
After this peaceful period, Nuri said, journalists were at risk and many were killed. Multiple groups competing for power emerged, making it difficult for journalists to conduct their work safely.
“You have so many groups from different backgrounds – Islamic groups, radical groups, secular groups,” Nuri said. “They all have arms and they have their own list of red lines that you should not cross. The danger increased for writers and reporters in Iraq after Saddam Hussein.”
Attendees were invited to ask questions, and censorship, political whistleblowing and safety were among the topics raised. Nuri said a particular type of censorship results from violence toward journalists and the suppression of freedom of speech.
“You come to a point where you censor yourself before the government censors you. And it’s very sad because it kills production of great ideas and printing of things,” he said.
He explained that in countries where many don’t have access to the Internet and other forms of media, radio is the best means to gain information. When government and the police know where media offices are, Nuri said, all media forms are under pressure, though the impact may be more subdued for the Internet.
He said there came a time when he felt he had to leave Iraq due to conditions within the country.
“At some point I had to leave. I saw so many people get killed in front of my eyes – friends, writers, journalists, reporters, women’s rights activists. At some point you have to ask yourself: am I willing to continue or not?”
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