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Just a Change of Masters for Iraq Press
Published on Wednesday, December 7, 2005 by the Sydney Morning Herald
Just a Change of Masters for Iraq Press
by Julia Baird
 

In a speech to the International Republican Institute in May 2005, George Bush said democracies were built on common foundations and included fundamental rights: "First, all successful democracies need freedom of speech, with a vibrant free press that informs the public, ensures transparency, and prevents authoritarian backsliding."

Given the US has spent a fortune trying to nurture a free press in Iraq, you would hope they might lead by example. The revelations that the US military "information operations" troops have been paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories they wrote themselves are alarming.

This is not how you establish a democracy.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the US military has been working through a Washington defence contractor, the Lincoln Group, which translated their stories into Arabic, and peddled them to media outlets, offering to pay money and posing as freelance journalists or advertising executives. The stories were critical of insurgents, praised US attempts to restore democracy to the country and were mostly presented as independent, unbiased news reports. They have also been paying monthly stipends to some Iraqi journalists.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise - this Administration has been caught out concocting stories before. Earlier this year, reports emerged of the US Government paying newspaper columnists to support their policies, and issuing news tapes featuring fake reporters filmed talking about current events - the footage was given free to television stations across America. Some stations played them without attribution. In 2002, the Pentagon closed the Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence, established just a year before, after stories ran in the press alleging they had developed plans to place false stories in the global media.

But the main reason these recent reports are such a shame is because they will destroy the credibility of US efforts to train and support a free and independent media within Iraq, casting suspicion over any Iraqi journalists trained by, or working with, Americans.

Working conditions are difficult,and dangerous enough, for journalists in Iraq.

Recent research by a New York Times foreign correspondent, David Rohde, at Harvard University this year found that while the US spent $200 million ($267.4 million) in two years on media development in Iraq - six times more than it has ever spent on this elsewhere - efforts to establish a free press have largely failed.

He attributes this to the closure or banning of media outlets in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 by the Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraq Governing Council, a failure to train privately owned media, counter-productive attempts to influence coverage and a lack of security for journalists. According to Freedom House, a non-profit, non-partisan monitoring group, the rating of press freedom in Iraq has declined since 2003, largely due to "instability, escalating violence and unanswered questions about the power and role of new institutions created to regulate the media".

Rohde concluded: "Two years after the invasion of Iraq, the country has not become the symbol of press freedom that American officials envisioned. Indeed, American policies, particularly those of the CPA, have curtailed the establishment of a free media in the country and undermined the broader cause of spreading democracy in the Middle East."

Just a few days ago the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was crowing about the success of the media campaign in Iraq, saying the hundreds of TV and radio stations and newspapers that sprang up between 2003 and 2004 were a "relief valve" for the Iraqis.

It's true that this boom, along with the sprouting of satellite dishes and internet connections was a welcome sign of the end of Saddam Hussein's rule.

But these privately owned companies are precisely those the US failed to support, when they chose to concentrate instead on reforming a large state-owned network. You cannot help but wonder if, given the frustrations of their overt press strategy, the US has turned to other covert operations.

There have certainly been historical precedents for this. One unnamed military official told reporters that Baghdad's "Information Operations Task Force" has bought an Iraqi television station and newspaper, which have been running pro-US reports. He would not reveal which ones for fear of insurgent attacks. How unnerving for the increasingly suspicious Iraqi readers. No wonder the Arab News cried "Hands off our press!"

Bush was right - a vibrant, transparent free press is critical to the health of democracy in Iraq. It's also critical to the health of democracy in the US. Propaganda is just about the worst form of "authoritarian backsliding".

Email Julia Baird at: jbaird@smh.com.au

© 2005 Sydney Morning Herald

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