In volatile Iraq, US curbs press
US issues an order against inciting attacks on minorities or US troops.
The once occasional attacks on US soldiers here are growing deadlier, and more frequent: Wednesday, a US soldier was killed and another wounded in a drive-by shooting. And outside the former Republican Palace, now the headquarters of the US administration, US troops killed two Iraqis during a protest by former Iraqi soldiers that spiraled out of control.
At least some of the fuel for the anti-American fire, US officials here charge, is being pumped out by new Iraqi media outlets.
L. Paul Bremer, the top US official here, says a new edict prohibiting the local media from inciting attacks on other Iraqis - and on the coalition forces - is not meant to put a stopper on the recently uncorked freedom of speech.
"It is intended to stop ... people who are trying to incite political violence, and people who are succeeding in inciting political violence here, particularly against women," Bremer said at a press conference Tuesday.
Iraqi journalists are not taking kindly to the restrictions. Among the scores of new publications that have flooded Iraq's newsstands since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, the broadsheet As-Saah is one of the most widely read. In a front-page editorial Wednesday, the paper's senior editor let readers know what he thought of the country's liberators: "Bremer is a Baathist," the headline reads.
In an interview, editor Ni'ma Abdulrazzaq says the press edict decreed by Bremer lays out restrictions similar to those under Mr. Hussein. Not long ago, an uppity writer could easily be accused of being an agent for America or Israel. "Now they put plastic bags on our heads, throw us to the ground, and accuse us of being agents of Saddam Hussein," the editorial reads. "In other words, if you're not with America, you're with Saddam."
"Mr. Bremer, you remind us of Saddam," the column continues. "We've waited a long time to be free. Now you want us to be slaves."
It is not clear whether or not such incendiary language would be considered a violation of the new media policy that Bremer, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), recently introduced. According to CPA Order Number 14, media are prohibited from broadcasting or publishing material that incites violence against any individual or group "including racial, ethnic, religious groups, and women"; encourages civil disorder; or "incites violence against coalition forces." Violators, if convicted, will be fined up to $1,000 or sentenced to up to one year in prison.
To be sure, many papers are full of scathing rebuke for the US forces, and sometimes peppered with far-fetched and incendiary reports. The average Iraqi reader might be led to believe that American soldiers are raping Iraqi girls, and undressing Iraqi women with night-vision goggles. Other reports allege that soldiers steal money during house searches.
For decades, Iraqis have lived in a state in which all news outlets were controlled by Mr. Hussein, and by his son Uday in particular. Testing the waters, the first papers to start publishing after the regime's fall tended to be affiliated with formerly exiled political parties. But now the market is awash in newspapers, some of them put out by journalistic novices. "Candy merchants in the markets have become publishers, and junior writers have become senior editors," says Mr. Abdulrazzaq, sitting in his newspaper office, his television tuned to al-Manar, a satellite channel run by Lebanon's Hizbullah movement.
Not unlike al-Manar, which reports with a fundamentalist Islamic slant, As-Saah was founded in late April under the aegis of a Muslim religious movement. But the paper recently decided to break away from the Unified National Movement, a Sunni Muslim group, says Abdulrazzaq, so it could be totally independent of pressures to conform to its outlook.
For Abdulrazzaq, working as a journalist under Hussein's regime was like writing in a self-imposed straight jacket. Abdulrazzaq says he was arrested "only" twice. Reporters knew where the red lines were and wouldn't dare cross them, he says, but even reporters who praised Hussein would sometimes wind up in jail - or dead. Now, he fears, journalists who should be learning how to break out of the boundaries of the past are learning to keep practicing self-censorship.
For example, he says, he had already pulled two articles which he feared would result in action against his newspaper. A story he postponed but plans to run this Saturday, he says, centers on "American soldiers saying bad things about the Koran and insulting it."
Criticism of the new guidelines has grown, although some of the frustration may be based more on rumor about what the policy entails, rather than on reality. The edict on "Prohibited Media Activity" was released last week in English - but only Wednesday in Arabic.
Bremer has reiterated that the point of the new press policy is not to hamper free speech or stifle criticism of the US-led administration here. "We very much believe that the freedom of expression should apply to Iraq," Bremer said. "But we need to balance that with a need to protect minorities from violence."