The Press In Iraq
12 June, 2003
Paul Bremer has ordered
his legal department in Baghdad to draw up rules for press censorship.
A joke, I concluded, when one of the newly styled Coalition Provisional
Authority officials tipped me off last week. But no, it really is true.
Two months after "liberating" Iraq, the Anglo- American authorities
and their boss Paul Bremer - whose habit of wearing combat boots with
a black suit continues to amaze his colleagues - have decided to control
the new and free Iraqi press.
Newspapers that publish "wild
stories", material deemed provocative or capable of inciting ethnic
violence, will be threatened or shut down. It's for the good of the
Iraqi people, you understand. A controlled press is a responsible press
- which is exactly what Saddam Hussein used to say about the trashy
newspapers his regime produced. It must seem all too familiar to the
people of Baghdad. Now let's be fair. Many stories in the emerging newspapers
of Baghdad are untrue. There is no tradition of checking reports, of
giving opponents the opportunity to be heard. There are constant articles
about the behaviour of American troops. One paper has claimed that US
soldiers distributed postcards of naked women to schoolgirls - they
even published the pictures, with Japanese script on the cards. Even
the most cynical Westerner can see how this kind of lie can stir up
sentiment against Iraq's new foreign occupiers.
"The people of Iraq
have fallen," Waleed Rabia, a 19-year-old student, wrote in the
new paper Al-Mujaha. "Invaders are in our country. The wild animals
of this jungle called a world are trying to rip us apart. We've been
through hard times under the old regime, but we were better then than
we are now ... Look at those girls who are having sex with the Americans
in their tanks, or in the bathrooms of the Palestine Hotel ... What
about those Muslim girls marrying Christian foreigners? No one can accept
this as a true Muslim or true Iraqi."
It isn't difficult to understand
the fury that this kind of article might arouse - and the idea that
the Anglo-American presence is as awful as Saddam's torturers betrays
a truly eccentric mind - though it would help if certain Iraqi police
officers were not admitting that they were arranging "dates"
for US troops.
What the Iraqis need, of
course, is journalistic help rather than censorship, courses in reporting
- by experienced journalists from real democracies (rather than the
version Mr Bremer seems set on creating) - rather than a colonial-style
suppression of free speech.
But we're now hearing that
imams in the mosques may be censored if they provoke unrest - this would
obviously include the imam of the Rashid Street mosque in Baghdad, outside
of which I heard him preaching last week. The Americans must leave,
he said. Immediately. Subversive stuff. Definitely likely to provoke
violence. So goodbye in due course, I suppose to the Rashid Street imam.
And of course, we all know how the first pro-American Iraqi government
of "New Iraq" will treat the laws. It will enthusiastically
adopt the Western censorship law, just as former colonies almost always
take over the repressive legislation of their former imperial masters.
I can obviously see the kind
of stories that must be, at the least, discouraged. Take last week's
extraordinary UN announcement - mercifully ignored in most of the Western
press - that Afghanistan is once more the world's Number One producer
of opium. The hateful Taliban banned all poppy production under their
vicious rule, cutting off the Northern Alliance warlords from their
narcotics production. But since America's "success" in routing
the Taliban, the drug barons - the very same Northern Alliance lads
who were US allies in the "war on terror" - have gone back
Not one American official
dares to comment on this shameful fact. Quite a memorial to the thousands
who died in the international crimes against humanity of 11 September
2001. As for the Iraqis, what lessons are they to draw? If the Americans
can let the narco-terrorists rule again in Afghanistan, why should they
be more moral in Baghdad where drugs are reappearing for sale on the
streets, courtesy - you guessed it - of the Afghan drugs trade. So censor
Then we have the German UN
arms inspector Peter Franck telling Der Spiegel magazine that Colin
Powell's evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, which he
presented to the UN Security Council in February, was merely "a
big bluff". The former UN inspector Scott Ritter - who all along
told audiences before the war that Saddam had no WMD - appears to have
been telling the truth. Saddam, he says, "couldn't have destroyed
weapons of mass destruction without leaving traces". So much for
Donald Rumsfeld's cheerful suggestion that the Iraqi dictator had got
rid of his nasties just before the Americans and British staged their
illegal invasion. "Britain and the United States should admit they
lied," Ritter now suggests. Censor the story.
Out at Baghdad airport, the
Americans are now holding 3,000 prisoners without any intention of putting
them on trial or charging them with offences. Where is Tariq Aziz, the
former deputy prime minister? The Americans say they have him. But we
don't know where. What's he being asked? About Saddam's weapons of mass
destruction? Or - my own guess - how much he knows about America's close
relations with Saddam after 1978? In fact, Aziz knows far too much about
that shameful alliance; after all, he met Donald Rumsfeld several times.
One thing's for sure. There'll be no trial for Tariq Aziz. Keeping him
silent will be the first priority. But that's not something the Iraqis
should learn about. Censor the story.
While we're still on the
subject of Baghdad airport, it's important to note that American forces
at the facility are now coming under attack every night - I repeat,
every night - from small arms fire. So are American military planes
flying into the airbase. Some US aircrews have now adopted the old Vietnam
tactic of corkscrewing tightly down on to the runways instead of risking
sniper fire during a conventional final approach. The source is impeccable
(it's within the Third Infantry Division, if the int. boys want to know).
But what will that tell the Iraqis? That the Americans cannot keep order?
That a resistance movement is well under way? Censor the story.
And what to print? Well,
there's the charnel house of mass graves being discovered every day,
the visits to the Saddamite torture rooms, the continued and uproarious
memoirs of the man who claims to have been Saddam's double - anything,
in fact, which will remind the people of how awful Saddam truly was
and take their mind off what is really being done to their country.
Bremer is trying to quick-fix his new "consultative" council
of wise Iraqis prior to the famous democratic election which has been
briefly postponed. And meanwhile he's fired a quarter of a million Iraqi
soldiers from their jobs - ready, no doubt, to join the nascent resistance
movement. Yes, it truly is time for press censorship in Iraq.