Freedom Falls Short In Iraq
By Robert Fisk
21 November, 2003
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 U.S. 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.
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
U.S.-appointed Governing Council, currently led by the convicted fraudster
Ahmed Chalabi, and punished for allegedly provocative programs 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, ranging 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 that every foreign journalist - and most Iraqi newspapers -
When a bomb blew
up in part of a mosque in Fallujah 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
that 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 United States has supposedly already
spent just over 21 million pounds sterling 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
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 U.S. soldiers have
been involved in distributing pornographic pictures to schoolgirls 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
But all news decisions
are made in Az-Zaman's London offices, and the paper never refers to
the "occupation," only to the "coalition," America's
own favored 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' Al-Moutamar
and the Kurdish Al-Ittihad - have also come out of foreign exile to
print in Baghdad.
Shawqat stayed at
her post at the Saddamite Al Jumouriyah until the very last day of the
war, April 9, when its offices were looted and burned 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, Udai
and Qusai, 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 U.S. announcement
that they came here to liberate Iraq and set up a democratic system."
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
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.
Iraqi press was nonprofessional and tightly controlled, then suddenly
it became free," he said.
For now, at least.