Global Policy Forum

Reimposing Controls on the Iraqi Press


By Monroe Price

International Herald Tribune
October 9, 2004

When Iyad Allawi, Iraq's prime minister, recently addressed the U.S. Congress, he predicted that the coming elections in Iraq would be free and fair. But back in Baghdad, at virtually the same time, a new agency that Allawi set up has been threatening to chasten and tame the Iraqi press, putting into doubt a vital element of a comprehensive voting process. Without a diverse press, capable of educating voters as to various sides of the political debate, capable of commanding popular respect, the integrity of the election would be suspect.

The Higher Media Council, as the new agency is called, is headed by Ibrahim Al-Janabi, a close friend of the prime minister. Established in August, the council is in the regressive process of emulating Saddam Hussein's Ministry of Information. The council has moved into the building of the ministry, re-employed some of its staff and is now threatening to license newspapers, impose requirements for publication that few existing news organizations can meet and punish unsubstantiated criticism of the government.

Part of the problem is reflected in the nomenclature: The body is called the Higher Media Council in part to demonstrate its superiority to the regulatory apparatus created during the period before the June 30 handover of power to an Iraqi administration. Last March, in one of its more enlightened ordinances, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority established a regulatory agency and a public service broadcaster with what, in the circumstances, can be described as relative independence.

Indeed, one of the few conspicuously acclaimed accomplishments in Iraq last year, intended or not, was the blossoming of a diverse, boisterous and unregulated press. A few quite horrid censorious missteps aside (including the disastrous closing of Moktada al-Sadr's newspaper in March), the coalition made media policy one of its hallmark efforts as a marker of a new democratic Iraq. Television licensing policy has been relatively open and unfettered, and newspapers are easy to initiate and, financing aside, free to publish what they wish. This is now in jeopardy.

The Higher Media Council, awkwardly feeling its way, sometimes talks the talk of free expression, but, often in an Orwellian and menacing way. It signals, in its meetings with the press, a more dangerous direction, using government power to make sure that news outlets are more tame, less likely to emphasize and reiterate harsh conditions in Iraq and more inclined to report the news that the government thinks people should hear. In his speech to Congress, Allawi singled out disturbing images that are being shown on American television. Understandably, he deplored the focus on such tragedies as kidnappings or images of young men and women cheering on violent attacks against Iraqi government institutions and American troops.

Under certain circumstances, in conflict environments, the regulation of incendiary images may invite government action. But they can only do so when an independent legal process has been imposed. Allawi's representatives would significantly and short-sightedly short-cut due process. There's a clear choice for the prime minister. He can take steps to ensure support for an independent press for its own sake, or, more fundamentally, as an integral part of the complex process of democratization. On the other hand, he can emerge as a tough controller of the press, with henchmen who make sure that it does not stray too far from the government line.

He can allow the Higher Media Council to hijack the processes of press evolution, or refashion it as a policy body that advises him on information flows within his society, but leaves an independent press more or less alone. Right now, there are troubling signs that intimidation and restrictions may prevail. If Allawi wants the world to take seriously the claims of a commitment to democracy, then the words to Congress should be reflected by appropriate action in Baghdad.

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