Paul Bremer has ordered his legal department in Baghdad to draw up rules for press censorship. A joke, I concluded, when one of the newly styled Coalition Provisional Authority officials tipped me off last week. But no, it really is true. Two months after “liberating” Iraq, the Anglo- American authorities and their boss Paul Bremer – whose habit of wearing combat boots with a black suit continues to amaze his colleagues – have decided to control the new and free Iraqi press.
Newspapers that publish “wild stories”, material deemed provocative or capable of inciting ethnic violence, will be threatened or shut down. It’s for the good of the Iraqi people, you understand. A controlled press is a responsible press – which is exactly what Saddam Hussein used to say about the trashy newspapers his regime produced. It must seem all too familiar to the people of Baghdad. Now let’s be fair. Many stories in the emerging newspapers of Baghdad are untrue. There is no tradition of checking reports, of giving opponents the opportunity to be heard. There are constant articles about the behaviour of American troops. One paper has claimed that US soldiers distributed postcards of naked women to schoolgirls – they even published the pictures, with Japanese script on the cards. Even the most cynical Westerner can see how this kind of lie can stir up sentiment against Iraq’s new foreign occupiers.
“The people of Iraq have fallen,” Waleed Rabia, a 19-year-old student, wrote in the new paper Al-Mujaha. “Invaders are in our country. The wild animals of this jungle called a world are trying to rip us apart. We’ve been through hard times under the old regime, but we were better then than we are now … Look at those girls who are having sex with the Americans in their tanks, or in the bathrooms of the Palestine Hotel … What about those Muslim girls marrying Christian foreigners? No one can accept this as a true Muslim or true Iraqi.”
It isn’t difficult to understand the fury that this kind of article might arouse – and the idea that the Anglo-American presence is as awful as Saddam’s torturers betrays a truly eccentric mind – though it would help if certain Iraqi police officers were not admitting that they were arranging “dates” for US troops.
What the Iraqis need, of course, is journalistic help rather than censorship, courses in reporting – by experienced journalists from real democracies (rather than the version Mr Bremer seems set on creating) – rather than a colonial-style suppression of free speech.
But we’re now hearing that imams in the mosques may be censored if they provoke unrest – this would obviously include the imam of the Rashid Street mosque in Baghdad, outside of which I heard him preaching last week. The Americans must leave, he said. Immediately. Subversive stuff. Definitely likely to provoke violence. So goodbye in due course, I suppose to the Rashid Street imam. And of course, we all know how the first pro-American Iraqi government of “New Iraq” will treat the laws. It will enthusiastically adopt the Western censorship law, just as former colonies almost always take over the repressive legislation of their former imperial masters.
I can obviously see the kind of stories that must be, at the least, discouraged. Take last week’s extraordinary UN announcement – mercifully ignored in most of the Western press – that Afghanistan is once more the world’s Number One producer of opium. The hateful Taliban banned all poppy production under their vicious rule, cutting off the Northern Alliance warlords from their narcotics production. But since America’s “success” in routing the Taliban, the drug barons – the very same Northern Alliance lads who were US allies in the “war on terror” – have gone back into business.
Not one American official dares to comment on this shameful fact. Quite a memorial to the thousands who died in the international crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001. As for the Iraqis, what lessons are they to draw? If the Americans can let the narco-terrorists rule again in Afghanistan, why should they be more moral in Baghdad where drugs are reappearing for sale on the streets, courtesy – you guessed it – of the Afghan drugs trade. So censor the story.
Then we have the German UN arms inspector Peter Franck telling Der Spiegel magazine that Colin Powell’s evidence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, which he presented to the UN Security Council in February, was merely “a big bluff”. The former UN inspector Scott Ritter – who all along told audiences before the war that Saddam had no WMD – appears to have been telling the truth. Saddam, he says, “couldn’t have destroyed weapons of mass destruction without leaving traces”. So much for Donald Rumsfeld’s cheerful suggestion that the Iraqi dictator had got rid of his nasties just before the Americans and British staged their illegal invasion. “Britain and the United States should admit they lied,” Ritter now suggests. Censor the story.
Out at Baghdad airport, the Americans are now holding 3,000 prisoners without any intention of putting them on trial or charging them with offences. Where is Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister? The Americans say they have him. But we don’t know where. What’s he being asked? About Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction? Or – my own guess – how much he knows about America’s close relations with Saddam after 1978? In fact, Aziz knows far too much about that shameful alliance; after all, he met Donald Rumsfeld several times. One thing’s for sure. There’ll be no trial for Tariq Aziz. Keeping him silent will be the first priority. But that’s not something the Iraqis should learn about. Censor the story.
While we’re still on the subject of Baghdad airport, it’s important to note that American forces at the facility are now coming under attack every night – I repeat, every night – from small arms fire. So are American military planes flying into the airbase. Some US aircrews have now adopted the old Vietnam tactic of corkscrewing tightly down on to the runways instead of risking sniper fire during a conventional final approach. The source is impeccable (it’s within the Third Infantry Division, if the int. boys want to know). But what will that tell the Iraqis? That the Americans cannot keep order? That a resistance movement is well under way? Censor the story.
And what to print? Well, there’s the charnel house of mass graves being discovered every day, the visits to the Saddamite torture rooms, the continued and uproarious memoirs of the man who claims to have been Saddam’s double – anything, in fact, which will remind the people of how awful Saddam truly was and take their mind off what is really being done to their country. Bremer is trying to quick-fix his new “consultative” council of wise Iraqis prior to the famous democratic election which has been briefly postponed. And meanwhile he’s fired a quarter of a million Iraqi soldiers from their jobs – ready, no doubt, to join the nascent resistance movement. Yes, it truly is time for press censorship in Iraq.
Robert Fisk is an internationally recognized journalist for the Independent of London. His in-depth reports on the Middle East have provided a much needed contrast to official doctrine and have empowered activists all over the world. He is a regular contributor to ZNet as well as the Nation and other publications.