- More than 100 newspapers have launched in Baghdad since
the war, and the Iraqi media have revealed stories that need to be told.
So why are the US-backed authorities imposing heavy-handed censorship?
- Freedom of the press is beginning to smell a little rotten
in the new Iraq. A couple of weeks ago, the Arabic al-Jazeera television
channel received a phone call from one of US proconsul Paul Bremer's flunkies
at the presidential palace compound. The station had to answer a series
of questions in 24 hours, its reporters were told. "They insisted
that if we didn't go to them, they'd come for us," one of al-Jazeera's
reporters told The Independent. And come they did - to drive the station's
employees to the palace where they were handed a sheet of paper asking
if they had been given advance notice of "terrorist attacks"
or had paid "terrorists" for information. Al- Jazeera - along
with its rival channel, al-Arabiya - had already been denounced by the
US-appointed "Governing Council", currently led by the convicted
fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, and punished for their allegedly provocative programmes
by being banned from the council's press conferences for two weeks.
- Then the same council - obviously on Bremer's instructions
- listed a series of "do's" and "don'ts" for all the
media which ranged from a prohibition on inciting violence all the way
to a ban on reporting on the rebirth of the Baath party or speeches by
Saddam. As columnist Hassan Fattah remarked about the council's punishment
of the two Arab channels, "the council and the interim council will
be silent for two weeks, throughout much of the Arab world, including Iraq
itself. The resistance and the terrorists, meanwhile, will still be able
to say what they want. What a perfect opportunity to pour their footage
onto the airwaves and capture the hearts and minds of Iraqis desperate
for stability and some leadership."
- Things are no better in the American-run television and
radio stations in Baghdad. The 357 journalists working from the Bremer
palace grounds have twice gone on strike for more pay and have complained
of censorship. According to one of the reporters, they were told by John
Sandrock - head of the private American company SAIC which runs the television
station - that "either you accept what we offer or you resign - there
are plenty of candidates for your jobs".
- Needless to say, the television "news" is a
miserable affair that often fails to make any mention of the growing violence
and anti- American attacks in Iraq which every foreign journalist - and
most Iraqi newspapers - report.
- When a bomb blew up in part of a mosque in Falujah last
month, for example - killing at least three men - local residents claimed
the building had been hit by a rocket from an American jet. The Americans
denied this. But no mention of the incident was made on the American-controlled
media in Baghdad. Asked for an explanation, newsreader Fadl Hatta al-Timini
replied: "I don't know the answer to that - I'm here to read the news
that's brought to me from the Convention Palace [the American headquarters
which also houses the station's offices], that's all." As Patrice
Claude of Le Monde noted in his paper, all the American-run media refer
to the authorities as "the forces of liberation", even though
the foreign press - including the New York Times - refer to them as "occupation
forces". The US has supposedly already spent just over pounds 21m
on Iraq's new audiovisual output but the Iraqi staff say they've not seen
the money. When Le Monde's man in Baghdad asked Sandrock for an explanation,
he declined to respond.
- On the surface, of course, Bremer's publicity men can
boast of a thriving new free press - at least 106 new newspapers in Baghdad
alone, many of them sponsored by political parties or by men who want to
become politicians. Some have called for a jihad against the Americans
- and have been visited by American officers asking why. Others have carried
blatantly untruthful stories about the occupation army, claiming that US
soldiers have been involved in distributing pornographic pictures to school
girls or taking Iraqi women to the bedrooms of the Palestine Hotel. One
problem is that many journalists for the Iraqi papers are either converts
from the old regime or new writers who have no journalistic training in
fairness or fact-checking.
- The most professionally produced paper - and the stress
must be on the word "produced" - is Az-Zaman which, roughly translated,
means The Age and is run by Saad al-Bazaz, the former Iraqi diplomat who
fell out with Saddam and published his paper from London through the long
last years of Baathist rule. Bazaz was himself the former editor of Saddam's
Al-Jumhouriya newspaper and one of his former colleagues on the old Baathist
rag, Nada Shawqat, is now the editorial supervisor for Az-Zaman in Baghdad.
"We have a circulation of 50,000 in Baghdad, another 15,000 in Basra,
each edition carrying 12 pages of foreign and Arab news and eight of local
news," she says. "It's good to feel like a real journalist at
last." But all news decisions are taken in Az-Zaman's London offices
and the paper never refers to the "occupation", only to the "Coalition",
America's own favoured expression for the armies of the United States and
its allies in Iraq. Bazaz still lives in London where Az-Zaman was printed
for years in exile. Two other papers - the Iraqi National Congress's al-Moutamar
and the Kurdish Al-Ittihad - have also come out of foreign exile to print
- Shawqat stayed at her post at the Saddamite Al Jumouriyah
until the very last day of the war, 9 April, when its offices were looted
and burnt, and when its archives - which included the paper's own reports
of the 1983 meeting between Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam - were destroyed.
- Shawqat said that under Saddam, she had some freedom
to write - until his two sons, Uday and Qusay, took an interest in the
press. "Then we started getting instructions every day from the Minister
of Information, telling us what to write and what not to write - it just
got worse and worse over the last 13 years."
- No one suggests that journalism under the Americans bears
any relation to those days. But Iraqi writers feel that the Bremer "code
of conduct" - forbidding "intemperate (sic) speech that could
incite violence" - is an example of "selective democracy",
similar in spirit if not in effect to the censorship under Saddam. According
to journalist Khadhim Achrash, "the decision doesn't fit with the
US announcement that they came here to liberate Iraq and set up a democratic
- Many of the new papers carry a menu of gossip and entertainment
and stories of the old regime. One of the first, terrible reports of Saddam's
atrocities told of his treatment of soldiers accused of cowardice in the
1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Two chilling photographs - taken by Saddam's own
military intelligence officers - showed a firing party executing a line
of soldiers and an officer giving the coup de grace to a still-living man
as he lay on the ground.
- Many Iraqi journalists believe the semi-legal "press
syndicate" taking shape in Baghdad is still Baathist at root although
others say it could be used to enact a new press law that would take censorship
out of Bremer's hands. Jalal al-Mashta, the editor of An- Nahda, blames
much of the problem on the speed of transition.
- "The long-muzzled Iraqi press was non-professional
and tightly controlled then, suddenly, it became free," he said. For
now, at least.
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