Military commanders sent the wrong message in Iraq on Sunday by shutting down an anti-U.S. newspaper that allegedly published lies that could endanger U.S. forces. The closure angered thousands of Iraqis, prompting protests in the streets and the burning of the U.S. flag. Claiming that occupiers have abridged freedom of speech and the new constitution, Iraqis are angered at the hypocrisy.
Newspapers that incite violence or propagate falsehoods about American dealings in Iraq present a clear threat and mustn't be ignored. But the occupying forces must act in accordance with the democratic principles that they hope to transmit. Iraqis will never accept our endorsement and promotion of democratic values if we ourselves fail to abide by them.
Real democracies abide by a fair process to achieve goals rather than mandates from on high. In a democracy, the ends don't justify the means. Instead, governing processes provide clear boundaries that prevent arbitrary government. In this case, the omitted step was to combat the alleged lies with the truth through an open process.
The outcry indicates that, despite decades of dictatorship, some Iraqis can spot an example of preaching democracy without practicing it. One taxi driver said: ''This is a contradiction to the new constitution. Where is the freedom of the press?'' This is a quintessentially American and democratic reaction: a citizen claiming his rights and citing the Constitution.
Despite the intent to protect our soldiers, the closing of the newspaper creates far more angst than it quells. It shows a lack of foresight by the occupying coalition because the policy intended to protect soldiers has actually created more dangers.
Instead of U.S. troops locking down the newspaper operations with a letter from administrator L. Paul Bremer, U.S. administrators could have sent Iraqi police with a letter from the Iraqi governing council. Instead of simply shutting it down, they could have asked the governing council to quickly outline an ad hoc trial process and bring charges of libel or incitement against the paper. In these ways, Iraqis gain a sense of ownership of their new nation and processes.
Moreover, if the pen really is mightier than the sword, they could have responded by printing a response (and evidence) in competing papers to combat the lies. A persuasive account of the truth would present an alternative to the lies by responding to or exposing their flaws. In Iraq, as in America, the best way to defeat irrational opinions isn't through suppression, but by allowing the truth to speak for itself. The worst way to promote democracy is through dictatorial means.
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