U.S. curtails Iraq’s newfound media freedoms

U.S. curtails Iraq’s newfound media freedoms

By Fariba Nawa
June 27, 2003
Village Voice

BAGHDAD—The print press is booming here as newspapers rose from five government-run papers during Saddam Hussein’s regime to around 150 now. But U.S.-led forces are dampening the mood of the free press by censoring it.

The U.S.-led administration here last week threatened to fine or close down any newspapers that incite violence or endanger the security of coalition troops or any ethnic or religious group. They will also shut down any publications supporting Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Coalition forces last week raided a distribution center of Sadda-al-Auma newspaper in Najaf, two hours from the capital. They questioned the staff and seized copies of an edition that ordered Iraqis to join the resistance against Americans.

The Americans defend their decision and consider it necessary for keeping Iraq safe and free of violence. They say the new papers lack responsibility and professionalism, and that they fabricate information. For example, one paper accused a coalition soldier of raping a woman and wrote that troops can see women naked through their night vision goggles.

Administrator L. Paul Bremer claimed at a news conference last week that Americans were not trying to hamper free speech.

“It is intended to stop … people who are trying to incite political violence, and people who are succeeding in inciting political violence here,” he said.

The Iraqi press has had different reactions to the order. Sadda-al-Auma has continued to publish anti-imperialist and anti-American articles after the raid.

Other, more moderate papers like Al-Zaman in Baghdad said they’re taking the ban in stride. “Of course this limits the freedom of the press, but Americans have reasons for this. We can’t just print whatever we want and increase the problems here,” said Neda Shawkat, one of the editors of the daily.

Whether the papers in Baghdad actually obey the order remains to be seen. Since the decree was issued last week, political papers affiliated with the numerous Iraqi factions continue to criticize American actions and occupation, at times demanding a violent resistance. Other editors have toned down their condemnations.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a media think tank that trains local journalists in crisis zones, published a report this week criticizing the American administration’s attempt to control the media in Iraq.

“Bitter rivalry between the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense have led to an absence of strategy, bad hiring practices and purchasing, and debilitating internal dispute. TV programming, in particular, has been poor,” the report said. “The stakes are high. . . . But the absence of a reliable Iraqi media exacerbates the frustration, and growing anger, felt because of the lack of an Iraqi authority and basic security and services. Powerless and uncertain, Iraqis need a voice.”

Iraqis rarely watch the state-sponsored Iraqi Media Network television. Now that satellite dishes are allowed, they watch al-Jazeera and other programs.

On the wide, sweltering streets of Baghdad, people are reading more than they have in decades. A colorful array of weeklies and dailies are lined up on store steps in the morning, held down by stones against the mild breeze. Only a few papers and magazines are left there by the evening hours.

Hassan Kadhem has owned the Sadun library and bookstore since 1976. He said his readers have quadrupled since the regime fell. “Of course they read more. The want to know how their lives will improve, when the electricity is coming back on, what services are available to them,” he said, pensively fingering his prayer beads. “The events of the day matter now. But we don’t really have freedom of the press. We can go as far as the Americans allow us.”

The majority of the papers churn out political and religious rhetoric from groups vying for power in the future Iraqi government. Al-Adala, Al-Fater, and Ida Rafideen all belong to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, one of the Shiite groups lobbying for an Islamic government.

Iraqis, who have had only government-produced newspapers for the last 35 years, are trained skeptics against propaganda and lies. They seem to read with a critical eye, sifting the information they want or a clarification of their own opinion.

“There are characters and newspapers popping up that you avoid reading, but it’s their right to say what they want,” said Tamer Musa Mohammed Ali, a 43-year-old hardware store owner. “I know which ones to disregard and which ones to believe. It’s not as if Americans are telling the truth.”

The most-read newspapers seem to be state-sponsored Al-Sabah and the independent daily Al-Zaman, which caters to all Arab countries. The latter is a snazzy 20-pager divided by sections of news and sports and produced by Saad al-Bazzaz, an Iraqi exile and businessman who founded the paper in London in 1997 and recently returned to Baghdad. The paper is increasing its Iraq distribution from 60,000 to 120,000, and al-Bazzaz is planning to start a radio and television program.

The Al-Zaman office is sparse but comfortable with an air-conditioned meeting room, four computers equipped with graphics software and an Arabic-typing program. Most of the pages are produced in London and Baghdad reporters fill local content. They go out and report, handwrite their articles, then turn them over to typists to enter into the computer for editing. Ali Jaber al-Baidani, one of the Al-Zaman editors, worked for one of the official papers during the old regime. He said the new press freedoms aren’t producing the best journalism.

“It really is a good opportunity for us, but the quality of the papers coming out is terrible. It has become about quantity, and where will this take us?” he said.

The coalition’s effort to regulate the Iraqi media has largely focused on “de-Baathification,” ousting any members or participants of the old regime. The Ministry of Information has been bombed and dissolved as 1,300 employees, including journalists, wait jobless. The coalition paid them $20 in the last three months. The former employees have organized against the coalition and have held demonstrations and talks to negotiate their jobs back.

Batool Ahmed Shekarchi was a designer for television programs. She comes weekly to the building across the street from the bombed ministry with other employees waiting for her salary and news about her job.

“I was so disappointed because I thought this would be a new beginning’ but I realized this is the end,” she said, smiling. “We’re innocent. Saddam Hussein’s regime insulted us.”

The Iraqi Media Network, which is a temporary replacement for the ministry, employs about 320 people, but few are from the old guard. Ahmed al-Rikabi, head of the network, said the old employees aren’t trusted because many were government informants.

“A number of those people were employed because they were the cousin of someone in Tikrit [Saddam’s birthplace] or Baathies,” al-Rikabi said. “We have clear political decision regarding the de-Baathification of this country.”

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