Shut Down

The U.S. has little credibility in arguing for media independence in Iraq.


Paul Bremer’s decision earlier this week to shut down Baghdad’s Al Hawza newspaper for publishing “false” articles has been roundly condemned in the world outside the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Green Zone: Shi’ites in Baghdad took to the streets in protest; Iraqi journalists cried hypocrisy; and newspapers and media analysts around the world agreed that nothing could have set a worse example of democracy at work — just three months before the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq — or more inflamed Iraqis, than this clumsy stab at censorship.

A New York Times editorial yesterday slammed the decision, saying, “There are times when the demands of security and the demands of democracy tug in opposite directions. This was not one of them.”

Yet it is not so simple as all that, in a couple of important ways.

Most reasonable observers admit that, even if they don’t agree with the decision to shut down Al Hawza, they understand why Paul Bremer did it. Al Hawza, like most of Iraq’s more than 250 fledgling newspapers, is a mouthpiece for a sectarian religious-political organization, speaking, in this case, for the religious extremist Muqtada Sadr, a powerful Iraqi Shi’ite with his own militia, “Mehda’s Army.”

The type of reporting that passes for journalism in Iraq today would make even Jayson Blair blush, but Al Hawza brought new and dangerous verve to its anti-American invective with reports like its February 26th article attributing the destruction — by car bomb — of an Iraqi police barracks, which killed more than 50 police recruits, not to insurgents but to an American missile. It’s easy to see how this sort of malicious misrepresentation of a clear enough truth threatens the security of occupation forces and undermines stability in Iraq, which is exactly what Paul Bremer argued in shutting down the paper.

It is said that in war truth is the first casualty, and Al Hawza is only one of many truth slayers in the propaganda war now being waged through the printing presses, airwaves and satellite dishes of Iraq.

In the Washington Post last week, Hiwa Osman, a journalism trainer at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Baghdad explained the challenges Iraqi journalists face in the post-Saddam era. Now that Iraqi journalists are free to report what they like, many don’t know how to do so accurately or responsibly, and are therefore little different from the journalists of Saddam’s day, says Osman.

The many new political party newspapers echo the Baathist style of “red carpet” journalism, hailing in a formal manner the achievements of the party and its leader, however minor. In the wake of the devastating bombings in Karbala and Baghdad, a day after the signing of Iraq’s interim constitution, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) newspaper’s lead story was a story about INC leader Ahmed Chalabi receiving a phone call from President Bush thanking him for his pivotal role in the approval of the constitution. The story of the bombings appeared on the lower half of the page.

The sensationalist papers are even worse. They have become popular because of their gossipy style. But like spoken gossip, the tales spun in these papers are often untrue, malicious or even anti-Semitic. Their appeal is not limited to the working class. Even educated Iraqis read and believe stories such as one that said (absurdly) that Jews from around the world have decided to give up their homes and businesses in London, Paris and New York to buy up all the property in lovely Baghdad.

But the great propaganda war being waged in Iraq – the war to determine who will be in charge in Iraq’s democratic future and the even greater war to determine if there will be a democratic future for Iraq at all – is being joined just as enthusiastically by Americans and the pro-American Iraqi media. Bremer and the CPA are working to institutionalize the process that led to the banning of Al Hawza by creating an interim media commission based on America’s newly activist FCC, to license broadcasters, draft media laws and develop ethical and professional standards. In the past, American troops have raided the offices of newspapers deemed to be aiding the insurgents and banned others for being “disrespectful.”

It might seem unfair to some that as well as setting the rules to the media game, the U.S. and the CPA are fielding their own teams to fight the media war for hearts and minds. That paradox hasn’t been lost on many Iraqis, who view American- and coalition-sponsored media with disdain. The United States currently sponsors the newspaper Al Sabah, an “upbeat daily” with practically no credibility on the street because of its U.S. ties.

The U.S. has also spent over $200 million developing a satellite TV station to cater to the one-third of Iraqi homes that now have satalites. The station, “Al Hurra” has drawn abysmal ratings and lost a number of U.S. and Iraqi advisors who left complaining that coalition officials tried to use the station as a public-relations vehicle.

And of course the Bush Administration’s struggle to understand the most basic principles of media independence are not confined to Iraq’s budding media. As Frank Rich wrote last Sunday in the New York Times:

After 9/11, similar fake-news techniques helped speed us into “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The run-up to the war was falsified by a barrage of those “modern public information tools,” including 16 words of Tom Clancy-style fiction in the State of the Union.

These media efforts transitioned nicely into the actual war effort in Iraq. Frank Rich further reports that Lt. Col. Rick Long, the former head of media relations for the Marine Corps during the war in Iraq said, “Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment. . . . Overall, we were very happy with the outcome.”

Doubtless American media manipulators will continue to be happy with their successes, right up to the moment democracy fails to catch on in Iraq, due in part to many of the same media shortcomings that are hampering our attempts at democracy here in America.

In a time and place when a simple choice of a noun – “terrorist,” “insurgent,” or “martyr,” can betray so much, it is impossible to hope for a truly unbiased media in Iraq. The most Americans and others interested in a more stable — if not immediately or perfectly democratic — future for Iraq can do is not stoop to the level of the truth slayers, nor abandon our own democratic principles in the fight for democracy in Iraq.