Freedom of the press is beginning to smell a little rotten in the new Iraq. A couple of weeks ago, the Arabic al-Jazeera television channel received a phone call from one of US proconsul Paul Bremer’s flunkies at the presidential palace compound. The station had to answer a series of questions in 24 hours, its reporters were told. “They insisted that if we didn’t go to them, they’d come for us,” one of al-Jazeera’s reporters told The Independent. And come they did – to drive the station’s employees to the palace where they were handed a sheet of paper asking if they had been given advance notice of “terrorist attacks” or had paid “terrorists” for information. Al-Jazeera – along with its rival channel, al-Arabiya – had already been denounced by the US-appointed “Governing Council”, currently led by the convicted fraudster Ahmed Chalabi, and punished for their allegedly provocative programmes by being banned from the council’s press conferences for two weeks.
Then the same council – obviously on Bremer’s instructions – listed a series of “do’s” and “don’ts” for all the media which ranged from a prohibition on inciting violence all the way to a ban on reporting on the rebirth of the Baath party or speeches by Saddam. As columnist Hassan Fattah remarked about the council’s punishment of the two Arab channels, “the council and the interim council will be silent for two weeks, throughout much of the Arab world, including Iraq itself. The resistance and the terrorists, meanwhile, will still be able to say what they want. What a perfect opportunity to pour their footage onto the airwaves and capture the hearts and minds of Iraqis desperate for stability and some leadership.”
Things are no better in the American-run television and radio stations in Baghdad. The 357 journalists working from the Bremer palace grounds have twice gone on strike for more pay and have complained of censorship. According to one of the reporters, they were told by John Sandrock – head of the private American company SAIC which runs the television station – that “either you accept what we offer or you resign – there are plenty of candidates for your jobs”.
Needless to say, the television “news” is a miserable affair that often fails to make any mention of the growing violence and anti-American attacks in Iraq which every foreign journalist – and most Iraqi newspapers – report.
When a bomb blew up in part of a mosque in Falujah last month, for example – killing at least three men – local residents claimed the building had been hit by a rocket from an American jet. The Americans denied this. But no mention of the incident was made on the American-controlled media in Baghdad. Asked for an explanation, newsreader Fadl Hatta al-Timini replied: “I don’t know the answer to that – I’m here to read the news that’s brought to me from the Convention Palace [the American headquarters which also houses the station’s offices], that’s all.” As Patrice Claude of Le Monde noted in his paper, all the American-run media refer to the authorities as “the forces of liberation”, even though the foreign press – including the New York Times – refer to them as “occupation forces”. The US has supposedly already spent just over 21 million pounds on Iraq’s new audiovisual output but the Iraqi staff say they’ve not seen the money. When Le Monde’s man in Baghdad asked Sandrock for an explanation, he declined to respond.
On the surface, of course, Bremer’s publicity men can boast of a thriving new free press – at least 106 new newspapers in Baghdad alone, many of them sponsored by political parties or by men who want to become politicians. Some have called for a jihad against the Americans – and have been visited by American officers asking why. Others have carried blatantly untruthful stories about the occupation army, claiming that US soldiers have been involved in distributing pornographic pictures to school girls or taking Iraqi women to the bedrooms of the Palestine Hotel. One problem is that many journalists for the Iraqi papers are either converts from the old regime or new writers who have no journalistic training in fairness or fact-checking.
The most professionally produced paper – and the stress must be on the word “produced” – is Az-Zaman which, roughly translated, means The Age and is run by Saad al-Bazaz, the former Iraqi diplomat who fell out with Saddam and published his paper from London through the long last years of Baathist rule. Bazaz was himself the former editor of Saddam’s Al-Jumhouriya newspaper and one of his former colleagues on the old Baathist rag, Nada Shawqat, is now the editorial supervisor for Az-Zaman in Baghdad. “We have a circulation of 50,000 in Baghdad, another 15,000 in Basra, each edition carrying 12 pages of foreign and Arab news and eight of local news,” she says. “It’s good to feel like a real journalist at last.” But all news decisions are taken in Az-Zaman’s London offices and the paper never refers to the “occupation”, only to the “Coalition”, America’s own favoured expression for the armies of the United States and its allies in Iraq. Bazaz still lives in London where Az-Zaman was printed for years in exile. Two other papers – the Iraqi National Congress’s al-Moutamar and the Kurdish Al-Ittihad – have also come out of foreign exile to print in Baghdad.
Shawqat stayed at her post at the Saddamite Al Jumouriyah until the very last day of the war, 9 April, when its offices were looted and burnt, and when its archives – which included the paper’s own reports of the 1983 meeting between Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam – were destroyed.
Shawqat said that under Saddam, she had some freedom to write – until his two sons, Uday and Qusay, took an interest in the press. “Then we started getting instructions every day from the Minister of Information, telling us what to write and what not to write – it just got worse and worse over the last 13 years.”
No one suggests that journalism under the Americans bears any relation to those days. But Iraqi writers feel that the Bremer “code of conduct” – forbidding “intemperate (sic) speech that could incite violence” – is an example of “selective democracy”, similar in spirit if not in effect to the censorship under Saddam. According to journalist Khadhim Achrash, “the decision doesn’t fit with the US announcement that they came here to liberate Iraq and set up a democratic system”.
Many of the new papers carry a menu of gossip and entertainment and stories of the old regime. One of the first, terrible reports of Saddam’s atrocities told of his treatment of soldiers accused of cowardice in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Two chilling photographs – taken by Saddam’s own military intelligence officers – showed a firing party executing a line of soldiers and an officer giving the coup de grace to a still – living man as he lay on the ground.
Many Iraqi journalists believe the semi-legal “press syndicate” taking shape in Baghdad is still Baathist at root although others say it could be used to enact a new press law that would take censorship out of Bremer’s hands. Jalal al-Mashta, the editor of An-Nahda, blames much of the problem on the speed of transition.
“The long-muzzled Iraqi press was non-professional and tightly controlled then, suddenly, it became free,” he said. For now, at least.