Against the Press

BAGHDAD – Sewage is coming through the manhole covers, there’s still only 15 hours electricity a day and anarchy grips the streets of Baghdad, but yesterday America’s toothless Iraqi ‘interim council’ roared like a lion, issuing a set of restrictions and threats against – the press, of course.

Aimed primarily at Arab satellite channels ‘Al-Djazeera’ and ‘Arabia’, which always air Saddam Hussein’s tape recordings, the almost Orwellian rules — each of which begin with the words ‘do not’ — mean that Iraqi or foreign press and television news organisations can be closed down if they “advocate the return of the Baath party or issue any statements that represent the Baath directly or indirectly (sic).”

The council, which was appointed by US proconsul Paul Bremer, admitted yesterday that it had consulted Mr. Bremer’s legal advisers before issuing its set of restrictions.

True to the chaos that governs Baghdad, the council’s spokesman, Intefadh Qanbar – Ahmed Chalabi’s man – initially said that ‘Al- Djazeera’ and ‘Arabia’ were to be closed down in Iraq.

Within two hours, it emerged that the two Arabic language channels would be punished for their alleged transgressions by being refused all co-operation by the ‘interim council’ for two weeks – a punishment many journalists here would wish to have inflicted on them.

But the list nevertheless provides an intriguing reflection on the ‘democracy’ which Mr. Bremer-who ordered his legal advisers to draw up censorship rules in the late spring – wishes to bestow on Iraqis.

Some of the restrictions are so self-evident as to be naive.

“Do not incite violence against any person or group,” for example, could have been enshrined in any civil law rather than a set of press restrictions.

“Do not incite violence against the authorities or people in a position of responsibility,” falls into the same category.

But the references to the Baath party are clearly intended to prevent Iraqis hearing Saddam’s voice.

Both Arab stations have run Saddam’s tapes in full, including his most sinister address with its worrying expression of affection for the people of Baghdad – “I miss you, my dears” – but the rule shows just how fearful the US authorities have now become of Saddam’s sympathisers.

After telling the world that most Iraqis are delighted with their ‘liberation’ and forthcoming ‘democracy’, the authorities are obviously aware that many Iraqis don’t feel that way at all.

Journalists and others must also inform the authorities of “any acts of sabotage, criminal activity, terrorism or any violent action…before or after an attack takes place.”

Journalists – not even ‘Al-Djazeera’s’ – receive advance warning of ambushes but the rule is effectively asking them to become assistants to the occupation authorities.

Many Iraqis would say, with good reason, that the fearful US troops who have killed so many innocent Iraqis before, during or after attacks on their convoys, are just as dangerous to them as the guerrillas assaulting the Americans.

And clearly, the restrictions can be interpreted to embrace just about any reporter in Iraq.

A dispatch quoting Saddam or describing the Americans’ sometimes brutal house raids can be deemed to have ‘represented’ the Baath party or incited Iraqis to violence.

There have been instances in the flourishing new Iraqi free press – there are now more than a hundred newspapers in Baghdad alone – of incitement to ‘jihad’ against the occupation authorities and totally false information about the behaviour of US troops.

But the opening of a journalism school would do more good than yesterday’s ‘do not’ list.

As it is, even reporting yesterday’s killing – or killings – near the Sunni city of Falujah by a missile-firing American helicopter – could fall into ‘incitement to violence’.

US forces say they came under fire from a house in the city and killed “one enemy”.

But hospital doctors gave the names of three men killed, all members of the same family: Ali, Saad and Salem al-Jumaili.

One of them was said to be an innocent farmer whose two children were wounded when he was killed.

American troops were later seen taking photographs inside the two buildings that were hit.

Pools of blood lay across the floor.

Via ZNet

Middle East correspondent for London's Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media