Last May the Iraqi people celebrated the end of Saddam Hussein's stranglehold over what they saw and heard through the media. However, Washington's controlling attitude to broadcasting in the region has left many Iraqis feeling that U.S. commitments to free speech are more rhetoric than reality.
At the end of last year, the Baghdad bureau of the Al Arabiya news channel was temporarily shut down after 20 Iraqi policemen stormed the building in protest against what Donald Rumsfeld described as its "close proximity" with attacks against U.S. soldiers and its "violently anti-coalition" tone. An Al Jazeera cameraman, arrested at the scene of an explosion, was held in a maximum security prison for two months.
Accusing the Arab media of colluding with terrorists has become something of a habit for the Bush administration. Tensions with Al Jazeera date back to the airing of Osama bin Laden tapes during the war in Afghanistan, when National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice warned that bin Laden's hand movements could be passing on clandestine instructions to followers.
Last April, after broadcasting footage of injured American prisoners of war, the station's Baghdad bureau was destroyed in a U.S. attack. U.S. authorities denied the attack was deliberate.
Critics in Washington fail to realize that that Al Jazeera and other independent stations are far preferable to the state-sponsored alternatives.
Regimes from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to Morocco have attempted to ban the channel's reporting of women's rights and corruption in government.
With its blend of phone-in debates and adversarial talk shows, Al Jazeera offers the region's intellectuals the rare opportunity to make their case without governments breathing over their shoulders. The majority of broadcasts center not on the evils of the West but on issues ranging from the legitimacy of state boundaries to divorce and homosexuality. Programs often feature American, European and even Israeli representatives in order to fulfil the station's motto, "Akthar min Ra'i" - "more than one opinion."
Objections to Al Jazeera from Washington have been coupled with a far from scrupulous attitude towards press freedom in Iraq. The United States gave $20 million to the old Iraqi state broadcasting service in May to relaunch itself as an independent station under the banner of Al Iraqiiya.
But its credibility has been destroyed since the Washington-based Index on Censorship revealed that street interviews with those critical of the United States had been edited out, coalition press conferences were broadcast unedited, and all content had to be approved by the wife of a Kurdish leader friendly to the United States prior to broadcast. An independent U.S. journalist who worked on the station last summer, Don North, has called it "an irrelevant mouthpiece of Coalition Provisional Authority propaganda, managed news and mediocre program."
Eighty-eight percent of Iraqis rely on television as their primary source of information, a figure increased by the decline in literacy during the 1990's. Unsurprisingly, they are voting with their remotes against TV's perceived bias and giving it a mere 12 percent audience share.
The belief that independent channels will be irrevocably anti-Western and that the United States should only encourage broadcasters over whom it retains control is deeply counterproductive. Radio stations over which the State Department retains the right to intervene in editorial decisions (even if rarely exercised) can only increase cynicism about Western motivations. Proponents of this strategy often point to the impact of U.S.-funded radio stations in Eastern Europe.
But eastern Europeans were much more sympathetic to the West and thus much more receptive to overtly pro-Western media. In fact, the most popular Western media in the Arab world is the relatively even-handed BBC World Service.
Some parts of the U.S. administration seem to believe that public opinion in the region will somehow be seduced by showcasing attractive products of U.S. culture - whether boy bands or the ballot box. Therefore Radio Sarwar will mix the Backstreet Boys with current affairs, and Voice of America will profile the happy lives of Muslims living in the West. But this misdiagnoses the problem. The people in the region are very clear about what they like and dislike about America. They admire its economic success and envy its freedoms while objecting to American foreign policies. After all, the BBC World Service has retained a large audience share in the region even while attitudes towards Western governments have become increasingly hostile.
Arguments for democracy and human rights could be won in the Middle East, but only through fair debate among Arabs themselves. According to the World Values Survey, a higher percentage of Muslims (around 88 percent) agreed with the statement, "I approve of democratic ideals," than Western Christians. After all the mixed messages, any initiatives funded by the West risk being so discredited that a panel of experts might be required to monitor whether media outlets are altering their editorial slant according to pressure from the coalition authority.
Reactions towards a free press in Iraq are the clearest illustration of the painful choices that supporting democracy in the Middle East presents to the West. For Western political leaders the temptation to silence "destabilizing" voices is an obvious one. But indulging this temptation contradicts the stated goal of political reform in the Arab world and hurts rather than helps the advancement of Western, particularly U.S., interests. Instead of making the voices of opposition go away, it gives their arguments more credence and a greater following.
The case for moderation is an extraordinarily strong one and the West must not be afraid to let it be tested by free debate. It is too late for propaganda and media control in the Middle East. Attitudes are too hard and the cynicism is too deep for these tactics to work. Only when our actions match our words can the battle for Arab hearts and minds be won.
Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Center. Rouzbeh Pirouz is founder of Civility, an organisation promoting political reform in the Middle East.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune