The United States’ Censorship of Media in Iraq
By Sarah Cameron
In a recent address to the European Union and NATO leaders, George Bush expressed his hope for peace and reform in the Middle East. While doing so, he hit upon a more questionable topic, stating, Arab states must end incitement in their own media. This would appear to be a rather hefty demand and an ethically questionable task, but one that the U.S. State Department has been taking very seriously. There are many Middle Eastern nations whose media the U.S. government has reason to watch. However, one serious cause of concern is the newly established independent media in Iraq.
Prior to the United States invasion in March 2003, free press had been non-existent under Saddam Hussein. By August 2003, over 100 papers in both Arabic and English had appeared on the streets of Iraq. Although relatively few of them survive today, they do provide a platform from which the Iraqi population can publish its own views, not only independent of the Ba’athist regime, but independent of the United States occupation.
President Bush unconsciously found himself in an ethical quandary. A country that prides itself on the protection of free speech for its citizens had to confront a contrarian press that threatened to further promote insurgency within Iraq.
The United States was quick to act upon the threat posed by an independent Iraqi press. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), led by Paul Bremer, set in place legislation regulating the new media. It issued licenses to media services in Iraq that could be revoked if a publication were to, amongst other things, make statements that purport to be on behalf of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party· incite violence against Coalition Forces or CPA personnel [or] advocate alterations to Iraq’s borders by violent means.
The repercussions of this legislation have been visible over the past two years against the most extreme of the Iraqi press. The Coalition closed down the newspaper Al-Mustaqila on July 13, 2003, after the paper stated that it was a religious duty · to kill all those who cooperated with the United States.
On March 28, 2004, Paul Bremer ordered the closure of Al-Hawza, the newspaper of militant Shi’a cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. Operations were suspended for 60 days after the United States claimed the paper had violated codes prohibiting incitement to terrorism. Al-Sadr had told his followers to terrorize the enemy, as peaceful demonstration had done little to change the Coalition’s attitude towards his party. However, it is difficult to view this one statement as an outright incitement to terrorism. The Coalition’s order for the closure of Al-Hawza was loosely worded, stating, many articles · were designed to incite violence against coalition forces and incite instability. In short, the Sadr movement had been crushed under Saddam Hussein, and in the wake of the dictator’s fall, the Coalition feared that Sadr might regain influence in Iraq. The Coalition needed pretexts to prevent the Iraqi population from hearing Al-Sadr. But the CPA’s aggressive closure of Al-Hawza by dozens of U.S. troops, who stormed in and boarded up the building, could be argued to have done more to encourage insurgency than anything published by the paper. The Sadr movement moved toward armed rebellion only once their public voice had been removed. Al-Hawza reopened in July of that year.
As the Iraqi press attempts to find its feet under the watchful eye of the U.S. government, truly free press would appear to be at somewhat of a premium. The 24-hour Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera, often considered to be at the cutting edge of independent Arab reporting, is now the biggest news source in Iraq, as well as for much of the rest of the Arab world.
Al-Jazeera was founded in 1996 by the Qatari government. It attracted many former BBC reporters and gained a wide audience as it provided critical Middle Eastern reporting in both Arabic and English. It now attracts upwards of 30 million viewers. The station has been regarded as a thorn in the side of not only the U.S. government, but also of several Arab governments. The U.S. government has accused Al-Jazeera of being in breach of the Geneva Convention with Al-Jazeera’s decision to broadcast images of dead and imprisoned U.S. military personnel. Meanwhile, no such accusations have been levied against Western news networks that chose to broadcast equivalent images of Iraqis. Dick Cheney has also issued warnings to Al-Jazeera that it risked becoming Osama’s outlet to the world were it to broadcast video messages from Bin Laden, although they were later broadcast by CNN.
Al-Jazeera’s form of critical reporting is another major element of the United States’ drive to muzzle the station. While the U.S. media, particularly stations such as Fox News, are providing pro-America propaganda, Al-Jazeera is analyzing these reports and placing them against contradictory facts from within Iraq. Al-Jazeera’s online edition includes a section entitled Who’s telling the truth? (www.aljazeera.com), inviting readers to read the same story as published by American and Middle Eastern news sources and then vote as to which report they feel has greater accuracy. In Bush’s rather abstract War on Terror he has picked the pan-Arab news station as terror’s propaganda wing. In November of last year, Al-Jazeera published eyewitness reports that the U.S. army was using banned chemical weapons such as napalm in its assault on Fallujah. Al-Jazeera’s reporting is not just reaching the Arab world; it has become popular in the West as a source of critical reporting on Bush’s war on terror, and was recently voted the fifth most influential brand by readers of www.brandchannel.net, behind companies such as Starbucks and Google. Last year the documentary Control Room, which charted Google. Last year the documentary Control Room, which charted the American invasion of Iraq through the eyes of Al-Jazeera, took in over $2 million at the box office.
Pressure from the United States appears to have been a key motivating factor in the recent decision to sell, and therefore privatize, the network. One Qatari government official told The New York Times that we really have a headache, not just from the United States but from advertisers and from other countries as well. The problem of the advertisers and other countries also appears to lead back to pressure from the United States. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Iraqi interim government have been placing increasing restrictions on the station’s activities in their respective nations. Iraq’s links are obvious, and Saudi Arabia has not been quiet about its alliance with the United States. Meanwhile, Jordan has been a key ally to the United States throughout the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The hold that America has on global economics means that many potential Middle Eastern sponsors cannot afford to alienate themselves by entering into a business deal with Al-Jazeera. The future of Al-Jazeera’s independent reporting is uncertain, but the Qatari official remained optimistic, hoping that the sale of the station would not lead to a dilution of its content.
The moves taken by the U.S. government to suppress contrarian media go to far greater extremes than pure censorship. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, British war reporter Kate Adie was told by a Pentagon official that if television signals out of · Baghdad, for example, were detected by any · mediums of the military above Baghdad, they’d be fired down upon. Even if they were journalists. On April 8, 2003, three targets in Baghdad were attacked. The headquarters of Al-Jazeera were bombed, killing one journalist, as were the offices of Abu Dhabi television, injuring several. Later that day the Palestine Hotel, a base for many news agencies in Iraq, came under fire from the U.S. military; two journalists were killed. A confusing variety of statements from the Pentagon followed, ranging from disclaimers that the only safe place for journalists to be is embedded within (and therefore controlled by) the U.S. military, to claims that the U.S. army acted in self defense, having first been fired upon from within the Al-Jazeera building. The same claim was made with regards to the Palestine Hotel.
In early March, U.S. troops fired on a car escorting Italian anti-war journalist and freed hostage, Giuliana Sgrena, killing intelligence agent Nicola Calipari. The United States claims her car sped through checkpoints, but some are suggesting that this was a direct attempt on her life. A companion, Pier Scolari, stated that The [United States] · knew about [her] car coming, adding, they were 700 meters from the airport, which means they had passed all checkpoints.
In the midst of all of this, U.S. journalists still appear unwilling to speak out. A senior CNN executive, Eason Jordan, was recently forced to resign following comments he made at the Davos conference in Switzerland. He implied that non-embedded journalists in Iraq were endangered by a lack of support from U.S troops in the country. He cited the deaths of a dozen journalists at the hands of the Coalition, but later backed down, stating that he never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists.
The U.S. State Department has also chosen another tactic to develop the proliferation of its own ideology in the Middle East. Just over a year ago, Al-Hurra (Arabic for The Free One) was launched. An Arabic language satellite television station, Al-Hurra is broadcast in 22 Middle Eastern countries. Funded by $62 million of U.S. State Department money, it is broadcast from Springfield, Virginia, a location conveniently close to Washington D.C, but strangely far from its audience nations.
Bush hopes that the station will tell people the truth about the values and policies of the United States and serve as a counter to the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world.
And now Bush hopes to spread his message to European Muslims. On February 28, the State Department announced its plans to broadcast Al-Hurra in Europe, with a particular focus on France and Germany, home to Europe’s largest Muslim populations and believed to be the base for several Islamic extremist terror organizations, including the Al-Qaeda cell responsible for the attacks of 9/11.
A cynical eye could view this as the 21st century version of the propaganda bombs used by the United States in Korea and Vietnam. But will United States based Arab-language broadcasting really do that much to turn the tide on militant Islam? It seems unlikely that an information source produced by the U.S. government could carry that much credibility, let alone influence, with those young Muslims tempted to turn towards those preaching radical extremes of Jihad. A survey published by Arab News found that even in Saudi Arabia, 82 percent of households watch the Qatar based station, while only 16 percent watch Al-Hurra. Indeed, Bush’s declaration that the airwaves of the Muslim world are filled with hateful propaganda lacks tact and, as if by accident, labels Islam as a propaganda merchant which, were it not for the U.S. State Department, would not have access to the truth.
In the context of Middle Eastern unrest, the actions by the Coalition could appear justifiable, at least to the United States. In a nation where emotions are running high and may be freely expressed for the first time, there is great potential for extremist organizations to abuse the rights of free speech to increase their influence. But is the Coalition able, or indeed willing, to distinguish between unfavorable public opinion and incitement to terrorism? In cases such as the Sadr movement, the Coalition is merging the two as a pretext under which they can attempt to maintain influence and control in Iraq.
The manner in which the Coalition has reacted to the free press in Iraq and established international media outlets demonstrates badly thought-out, instinctive reactions to events the government naively failed to foresee. It seems improbable that the State Department would have failed to realize that in liberating Iraq, media unfavorable toward the liberating forces would be generated. They surely cannot have expected that Iraq would have a predetermined Western sense of what should and should not be published in a newspaper. Beyond this, they cannot have expected to receive the full support of the Iraqi press when the population more often views America as occupiers rather than liberators. It would be fair to conclude that the Untied States wanted to liberate Iraq, but in their own way: the Coalition’s legislation regulating press content implies, at best, a low tolerance to pluralistic viewpoints and at worst, a form of intellectual imperialism.
British journalist Christopher Hitchens recently commented that the engagement in Iraq was a matter of taking aside Iraqi and Kurdish democratic forces and asking how one could be of help to them. Perfectly logical. However, the U.S. government has failed to be so modest as to simply provide assistance to these democratic forces. Their actions have given a greater impression of, this is the help you want and this is how it will happen under our authority. Iraq will need to develop its own media independent of western intervention. The more the United States does to criticize and limit freedom of expression within Iraq, the more it will anger the insurgent forces within the country by appearing as a hypocritical and unwanted authority.
Art by Wafaa Bilal