The Kurdish vote for independence: What spin does to an already complex situation
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The Kurdish vote for independence: What spin does to an already complex situation

September 28, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

92.7 percent of Iraqi Kurds vote ‘yes’ in nonbinding independence referendum

On Wednesday, electoral commission officials from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq announced that 92.73 percent of Kurds had voted “yes” in an independence referendum held on Monday. The turnout for the referendum was 72.61 percent, with 3,305,925 people voting.

Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, said the vote was nonbinding and intended to give the KRG a mandate to start independence negotiations with the government in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has rejected such talks, and Iraq’s Supreme Court ruled the referendum illegal before it took place. Barzani has said the vote will not lead to an immediate declaration of independence.

Also on Wednesday, Iraqi lawmakers authorized al-Abadi to deploy troops to a disputed city in the northern part of the country. Last week, Baghdad requested foreign countries to stop direct flights to the two international airports in Kurdish territory by Friday. Iran later halted direct flights to and from those airports. Some carriers from Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Dubai also suspended flights. In a televised speech, Turkey’s president said the country could cut off its exports to the region.

Numbering around 35 million, the Kurds are an ethnic group living in parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, according to CNN, which cited the CIA Factbook. They have their own culture and a language different from the predominant Arabic and Farsi in the region. There has never been an independent Kurdish state. In its 2005 constitution, the Iraqi government officially recognized the region, which includes the Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah provinces, as semi-autonomous. The region has its own government and security forces.

Distortion Highlights

  • Spin is great for fiction and the arts, but when it’s part of the news, it makes it harder to follow what’s going on in reported events.
  • The Kurdish referendum in Iraq is part of a complex system of players and interests — the facts alone are enough to keep track of.
  • Through a quick comparison, see how spin affects the information, and why it’s both useful and efficient to leave it out.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Bloody fight

    Kurds celebrated in the streets of Irbil, the capital of their semiautonomous enclave, hailing the result as a landmark moment in a bloody century-long fight for independence. (Al Jazeera)

  • Increasingly sharp rhetoric

    U.S. officials have struggled to balance their support of the Kurdish region with its close ties to Baghdad, and are trying to calm increasingly sharp rhetoric from both sides. (The Washington Post)

  • Tensions

    Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted to become an independent country Monday in a move likely to increase tensions in the Middle East and with the international community writ large. (The Daily Caller)

    Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favour of a split from Iraq, according to regional officials, as tensions soared between Erbil and Baghdad following a contested referendum. (CNN)

  • Fierce backlash

    Kurds in northern Iraq overwhelmingly voted to secede from the country, according to results of a referendum announced Wednesday, amid threats of military intervention from the central government and a fierce backlash by its neighbors. (Al Jazeera)

  • Vehement

    The poll took place despite vehement opposition from the Iraqi government, which described it as unconstitutional and has authorized use of force against Iraqi Kurdistan. (CNN)

  • Escalates

    Iraqi Kurds vote in favor of independence as crisis escalates (The Washington Post)

    Earlier Wednesday, Iraqi lawmakers authorized Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to deploy troops to a disputed city in northern Iraq and urged legal action against Kurdish leaders as a showdown escalated over the vote. (The Washington Post)

  • Shore up

    Iraqi and U.S. officials, along with a small minority of Kurds opposed to Barzani, have accused him of using the referendum as a tool to shore up his shaky political standing. (The Washington Post)

  • Shadow

    The referendum’s result is likely to remain a shadow over the remaining U.S.-backed mission to defeat ISIS and the Iraqi governments (sic) decades long effort to rebuild Iraq after years of war. (The Daily Caller)

  • Powerful

    Kurdish election authorities said they were proud of the 72 percent turnout, calling it a powerful expression of the enthusiasm for self-rule. (Al Jazeera)

Sensational, imprecise or subjective terms add more to the news than an entertainment factor — they obscure the information, making it harder to figure out what happened and what the effects of that could be. We found all these forms of spin in the coverage of the Kurdish referendum, which is an already complex situation.

Here’s a quick illustration of what happens when spin is brought into journalism. Examine the following information, which is in the style of our Daily Cut news summaries.

Iraqi Kurds voted 92.73 percent in favor of independence from Iraq in a non-binding referendum, according to regional officials.

The outcome could be a step towards independence for the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and areas it claims.

Kurdish secession is opposed by the central government in Baghdad. Iraq, Turkey and Iran have responded to the bid for independence by deploying troops to the area and restricting travel in and out of Kurdish territory.

The U.S. Department of State issued a message before the vote on Sept. saying, “the costs of proceeding with the referendum are high for all Iraqis, including Kurds.”

Now, compare the above to excerpts from Al Jazeera1, CNN2, The Washington Post3 and The Daily Caller4 (the spin is noted in red). The information below is arranged in the same order. In fact, the previous summary was extracted from these passages.

Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favor of a split from Iraq, according to regional officials, as tensions soared between Erbil and Baghdad following a contested referendum.1

The outcome represents a step towards independence for the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and areas it claims, and puts Kurdish authorities on a collision course with their counterparts in Baghdad.2

Any idea of secession is bitterly opposed by the central government in Baghdad.1 The bid for autonomy has roiled Iraq’s central government, Turkey and Iran, and is shaping up to usher in a period of contentious wrangling over its implementation.3

The U.S. Department of State issued a particularly scathing message before the vote on Sept. saying “the costs of proceeding with the referendum are high for all Iraqis, including Kurds.”4

Did you notice the added length, imprecision, ambiguity, how it dramatized the information and how it affected your impression of the situation? Did you also notice the spin didn’t add any significant information? The spun version actually added opinion instead.

More importantly, the spin in these articles isn’t random. If you look at the language, it supports the idea that this situation is headed towards an armed conflict with Baghdad, and possibly an international conflict as well. But the articles don’t substantiate this possibility, and also don’t offer other possibilities for how this situation could evolve.

In the case of Iraq and its Kurdish population, there are numerous issues, interests and factors to keep track of, not just locally, but internationally as well (for more on this, read the Timeline at the end of this analysis). And, as the outlets note, how these two groups handle this situation may influence the way surrounding countries govern their Kurdish populations. To add spin to all of this seems, in the least, unnecessary. It ultimately distorts our understanding of events, and it can inspire premature speculation about possible outcomes, which, if left to the imagination, usually translate into worst-case scenarios.

Having data-based news will deliver what we need to know, while saving us time in the process.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 54% Spun

  • 58% Spun

  • 64% Spun

  • 69% Spun


The Washington Post

“Barzani’s presidential term ended in 2015, but he has used extraordinary measures to stay in office and paralyze the Kurdish parliament.”

Barzani’s second four-year term as president ended in 2013. The Kurdish parliament extended his term for two years then.

The Daily Caller

“The referendum’s result is likely to remain a shadow over the remaining U.S.-backed mission to defeat ISIS and the Iraqi governments (sic) decades long effort to rebuild Iraq after years of war.”

The U.S. Department of State issued a message prior to the vote, saying, “Already the referendum has negatively affected Defeat-ISIS coordination to dislodge ISIS from its remaining areas of control in Iraq.”

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Israel is the only country in the region that supported the vote. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed what he described as “the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state.” (CNN)

This information, which was missing from The Washington Post, Al Jazeera and The Daily Caller, shows the Kurds have some international support, even if countries such as Turkey and the U.S. have spoken out against the referendum. This may help round out people’s understanding of the international response.

The country’s own supreme court nullified [the referendum] as illegitimate before the vote took place. (The Daily Caller)

Including the Iraqi judiciary’s response to the referendum details a legal action the country has taken on the matter. The other outlets did not mention this information.


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Dramatizes some of the responses to referendum.

Highlighting the vague notion of “threaten[ing]” Iraqi Kurdistan in the headline might sensationalize the news, but it doesn’t specify what’s happened. These states took some measurable steps in response to the referendum, and reportedly only Turkey said it might cut off its exports to the region. Might.


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Authorizing the “use of force” in response to the referendum indicates the “escalation” of a “showdown” between Baghdad and the KRG.
  • The referendum is bad and is going to “galvanize independence movements” in Turkey, Syria and Iran, and further “destabilize” the region.
  • The referendum will negatively affect the effort to defeat IS.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • No article explains why the use of force would be necessary. The intended goal of the referendum, according to Barzani, is to restart negotiations with Baghdad over Kurdish independence. No fighting has taken place and violence between the two governments isn’t guaranteed.
  • The referendum may be good for Iraqi Kurds and Iraq. Kurds throughout the region have “fought at times for greater rights, autonomy, and independence,” according to the Kurdish media network Rudaw. Their or other movements for independence may not have to be “destabilizing” for the country or region; there are many avenues through which this goal may be pursued and negotiated. Mediation could occur, in which all parties come to a diplomatic resolution, although no article proposes this possibility.
  • Although the U.S. and Iraq have concerns about IS, the referendum or possible Kurdish independence may not negatively affect their efforts. The Daily Caller points out that “already the referendum has negatively affected Defeat-ISIS coordination,” but doesn’t say how. Given that IS is no longer near major Kurdish enclaves except for Hawija, as shown on this map, and may no longer be a direct threat to the Kurds, it could be that they may no longer support the initiative as much, regardless of the possibility of independence. It’s also possible that as an independent state the Kurds may continue to back the fight against IS and in an increased capacity from what they currently do.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

Some of the information below focuses on the Kurds’ rights as a people within Iraq. Kurds in areas such as Syria and Turkey may have different conditions and states of representation depending on each government.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds have traditionally resided in the area known as “Kurdistan,” or “Land of the Kurds,” which comprises territories of modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The CIA Factbook estimates the world’s Kurdish population to be around around 35 million, while the Kurdish Institute of Paris estimates it to be between 36.4 million and 45.6 million, which includes at least 8 million Kurds in Iraq.

Language: The Kurdish Project estimates the Kurdish languages developed between 4,000 and 2,000 years ago, and they’re grouped into three main dialects: Northern Kurdish, Central Kurdish and Southern Kurdish. An estimated 65 percent of Kurds speak the Northern dialect of Kurmanji. The Central Kurdish dialect of Surani is spoken in parts of Iraq and Iran. While Sorani is written using Arabic script, Kurmanji is written using Latin and Cyrillic script.

Religion: A 2011 Pew Research poll showed that 98 percent of Iraqi Kurds identify as Sunni Muslim; the other two percent claim to be Shia Muslim. However, Kurds also practice Judaism, Christianity, Babaism, Yezidism and Yazdanism.

Culture: Due to the integration with other cultures, the Kurds share some regional traditions. They also dictate stories via “epic” poems called lawj, listen to Kurdish folk songs performed by Dengbej and perform carpet-weaving art.

How long have they been in the region?

Accounts vary. Historians note that multiple civilizations in the region conquered each other over the centuries. According to the Kurdish Institute of Paris, a Kurdish lord named Rozeguite founded an independent caliph in a town called Akhlat on the banks of Turkey’s Lake Van in 837 AD.

By the second half of the 10th century, the area known as Kurdistan was inhabited by four separate Kurdish factions. The Institute says Seljuk Turks then conquered each of the Kurdish factions; and a Turkish sultan, “in homage to the distinctive personality of the Kurdish country,” gave the region its name: “Kurdistan.”

The Kurdish Project says the people survived over the years by fleeing into the area’s uninhabited mountain ranges to avoid attackers.

What rights do they have in Iraq?

The Kurdish government in Iraq has its own budget, economy, military, parliament and president. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Kurds have about 115,000 soldiers in their Peshmerga army, which means “those who face death” in Kurdish. Kurdistan also has its own flag and national anthem, which can be found here.

Prior to the first Gulf War, records recovered in 1993 showed cases of soldiers executing Kurdish civilians, and the launching of chemical attacks on the population.

1991: After the Gulf War ended, a U.S.-led international coalition established a no-fly zone over Kurdish airspace to protect them from attacks by Saddam Hussein’s government, which had used chemical weapons against the Kurds from 1987 through 1988, according to Human Rights Watch. Iraqi military forces eventually withdrew from the area.

1992: The Kurds held parliamentary and presidential elections, which established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KRG also established legal jurisdiction over the provinces of Erbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniyah.

1996: The KRG established their own constitution.

2005: Iraq drafted a constitution that established Arabic and Kurdish as the country’s two official languages, and gave Iraqis the right to educate children “in their mother tongue.” The constitution also formally sanctioned the region of Kurdistan “and its existing regional and federal authorities,” which allowed the Kurds to form their “semi-autonomous” government. Despite formal recognition by the Iraqi government, the two governments disputed certain territories, including Kirkuk, which houses oil fields.

2014: Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani announced plans for an independence referendum. BBC reported that the Iraqi and Kurdish governments eventually agreed to postpone the vote so they could work together to fight IS. In June 2017, Barzani announced plans to hold an independence vote in September.

What’s their role in the fight against the IS?

BBC reports that IS militants began targeting Syrian Kurds in 2013. As IS advanced into Iraq, the KRG’s Peshmerga forces went to areas abandoned by the Iraqi army to fight IS insurgents.

The CFR cites, for example, that the Iraqi military fled Kirkuk after IS attempted to capture the area’s oil fields. Peshmerga forces were able to drive out IS and seize control of the area.

After an increase in IS attacks in the region in 2014, the U.S. military joined forces with the Peshmerga, giving them arms and aid. Since then, Kurdish forces have continued to fight IS militants in Syria, Iraq and along the Turkish border, per the BBC.