Iraqi Democracy Means a Free Press
Published on Sunday, May 18, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Iraqi Democracy Means a Free Press
by Antonia Zerbisias

The trouble with a free press is that it is free.

Which could be too free for the American occupying forces, even though they "solemnly swear" to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States," which guarantees a free press.

But then, Iraq isn't the United States.

Which helps explain why, just the other day, Maj. Gen David Petraeus, the Army 101st Airborne Division's commanding officer, and top dog in northern Iraq, seized "editorial control" of the only TV station in Mosul over its "predominantly non-factual/unbalanced news coverage."

This because the station, which lost all its cameras to looters and had to rely on acquired programming, including Al-Jazeera's news coverage, aired details of a letter supposedly penned by toppled dictator Saddam Hussein urging Iraqis to rise up against the invaders.

"We have every right as an occupying power to stop the broadcast of something that will incite violence," Petraeus told reporters. "Yes, what we are looking at is censorship but you can censor something that is intended to inflame passions."

Not to dwell on the ironies here but I can't help but note that Petraeus would not be censoring old reruns of Baywatch, no matter how many Iraqi passions they inflamed.

Nor would he be sending soldiers stateside to stand watch over, say, some of the more strident inciters of anti-Arab sentiments on Fox News or, for that matter, some of the Christian fundamentalist stations.

Mind you, even in America where the media are free, there's military participation.

The embedding of some 600 journalists with the British and U.S. forces was a public relations coup. Who can forget all the retired stars'n'bars with their maps and pointers during Operation Iraqi Freedom? And, as would later be revealed, CNN actually got the Pentagon's stamp of approval before signing its roster of talking brass. That's not to mention the top gun himself, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his platoon of press briefers.

Although President George W. Bush's administration purports to be liberating its newly conquered territory, it has a strange way of going about it, especially since a free press is the lifeblood of a democracy.

So far, it has brought in "Towards Freedom TV," a poor-quality broadcast from a military transport plane run by the Broadcast Board of Governors, a state agency that oversees the Voice of America (VOA) and other government-sponsored media projects.

There's also Radio Sawa, the Arabic version of the pro-Western VOA. Launched right after 9/11, it rocketed to the top of the Middle Eastern charts with its mix of American and Arabic pop, local cultural and sports news, plus Bush's weekly radio address, and other major speeches. Not surprising then that the station is seen as blatantly biased.

Last week, the American-sponsored Iraqi Media Network got off to a shaky start, not helped by editorial interference from the U.S. administration-controlled Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. It prevented the network from airing passages from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and a program about rebuilding Iraq that was critical of the U.S.

According to Reuters, the network has had to postpone its live half-hour newscasts because of conflicts over who controls what goes to air.

"As journalists we will not submit to censorship," Dan North, a Canadian filmmaker who works with Iraqis at the station, told Reuters. "This whole idea was about starting the genesis of an open media so we will not accept an outside source scrutinizing what we produce."

Countered Robert Teasdale, a U.S. adviser to the network, "This is not American propaganda. This is the first time in 25 years Iraqis are getting TV that is not propaganda."

He has a point: It's not like the Iraqis had an unfettered press before the Americans came marching in.

Back in the Saddam Hussein days, when No. 1 son Uday headed the Iraqi Journalist's Union and owned 11 newspapers, plus TV and radio stations, there was, shall we say, a certain timidity in the media there. Journalists were not allowed to use words such as "democracy," they couldn't criticize the oil industry and questioning Saddam's regime got them a one-way ticket to a mass grave.

No wonder that, as the BBC's Stephen King, who is helping to get Iraqi media up and running, told me on CBC Newsworld's Inside Media last week, would-be press barons and journalists need to be trained on how to practice their craft.

"People aren't used to asking searching questions," he said. "People aren't used to the cut and thrust of political interviewing."

So, compared to the pre-invasion days, even U.S. military-controlled Iraqi media has to be an improvement ... right?

Not that many citizens are noticing right now, seeing as they're cowering in their homes in the dark, without electricity.

Just as well: Less than 10 per cent of the populace owns a TV set, while even fewer households boast a satellite dish.

As for computers and Internet access, well, who knows?

All this is why, if the U.S. really does mean to bring democracy to Iraq, perhaps it ought to consider setting aside a few bucks not for more military might, nor to help American big business come in and colonize the fast food and chain store landscape.

Instead, it ought to invest more to help Iraqis make, control and, most important, access their own news media, and let the press run free, without strings.

The trouble with that is that a truly independent press and informed citizenry is bound to set its sights on the powers that be.

And the powers that be in Iraq right now intend to keep on being just that for a long, long time.

Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited