22. Exporting Censorship to Iraq

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

The American Prospect, Volume 14, Issue 9, October 1, 2003
Title: Exporting Censorship to Iraq
Author: Alex Gourevitch

Asheville Global Report, May 12, 2003
Title: U.S Army Major Refuses Order to Seize Iraq TV Station
Author: Charlie Thomas

Faculty Evaluator: Jeffrey Holtzman Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Sara Brunner, Doug Reynolds

Soon after Coalition forces toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, occupying Chief L. Paul Bremer III, reflecting on the new freedom in Iraq, told journalists that they were no longer constrained by the government and were now “free to criticize whoever, or whatever, you want.” But he was not telling the truth. Everything changed very quickly when Bremer was the person coming under that very criticism.

When negative critiques of his policies appeared on the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), Bremer placed controls on its content. IMN was an American-run outfit contracted by the Pentagon to put out news after the fall of Saddam. IMN’s mission was two-fold: to be both a PBS-style broadcaster and a means for the occupying authorities to communicate with the Iraqis. Bremer issued a nine-point list of “prohibited activity” that included incitement to violence, support for the Baath Party, and publishing material that is patently false and calculated to promote opposition to the occupying authority. He clamped down further on the independent media in Iraq by closing down a number of Iraqi-run newspapers and radio and television stations. The IMN was bound to find a conflict in encouraging democratic values while under pressure to go along with the coalition forces ruling by force.

From the beginning, Pentagon decisions seemed to run counter to its well-publicized intention to create a free Iraqi society. Early last year, rather than hiring a media outlet to run the IMN, the Pentagon chose a defense contractor, Scientific Applications International Corp. (SAIC), instead. With SAIC’s orientation leaning more toward information control than information dissemination, it is hard to see how they were going to create a public broadcasting-style multimedia operation in post-war Iraq. The IMN was created in April, 2003, and it was not long before journalists hired by the SAIC realized their double role. The occupying authority told them to stop conducting man-on-the-street interviews, because some were too critical of the American presence, and to stop including readings from the Koran as part of cultural programming. IMN TV was also forced to run an hour-long program on recently issued occupying authority laws despite objections from Don North, a senior TV advisor to the IMN station.

Additionally, coalition forces were ordered to seize the only TV station in Mosel Iraq because they had televised some programs from the network Al-Jazeera in its broadcast. The independent station had lost its cameras to looters so they had turned to a mix of Arabic news channels and NBC to continue broadcasting. The Commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus gave the order to seize the station. But in a surprising show of bravery and professional ethics, Major Charmaine Means, the head of the Army public affairs office in Mosul, would not agree to the seizure, saying that to do so would mean the station would be intimidated into airing only material approved by the U.S. Military. She refused twice to follow her superior officers’ orders, after which she was relieved of her duties. The station was eventually taken over by coalition forces. IMN has said that it would like to take over the offices in Mosul. IMN’s having direct control over the facilities would give the American authority a broadcasting foothold in northern Iraq.

The Occupying authority is now developing an independent media commission run by journalists rather than the U.S. Army to enforce Bremer’s rules more judiciously and to develop a more rational set of media regulations.

UPDATE BY ALEX GOUREVITCH: My main interest in writing the article was to identify the core problems with the idea of ‘exporting democracy’ to other countries. I had heard there were problems with developing an independent and public media in Iraq and thought that looking at how the U.S. tried to manage the development of open media and ‘free speech’ would be an excellent way of showing how external ‘democratization’ doesn’t work because democracy has to come from the inside. The people have to define the parameters of their politics, interpret principles like free speech, for themselves.

I thought my article exposed the contradiction between the logic of occupation and the logic of democratic politics, and I think this continues to be a problem. For instance, one of the triggering events of the recent and ongoing Sadrist uprising was the CPA’s decision to shut down al-Hawza al-Natiqa, a low circulation newspaper supportive of Moqtada al-Sadr. Less radical Iraqis have also responded negatively to heavy-handed treatment of the media. On May 4, the Washington Post reported that the editor-in-chief of Al-Sabah, the U.S. funded newspaper in Iraq, Ismael Zayer, resigned along with some editors and reporters. Zayer told the Post that “We thought that Americans were here to create a free media” but “instead, we were being suffocated.”

The CPA justifies its restrictions and censorship on the grounds that there is a tradeoff between liberty and security, especially when it comes to potentially incendiary speech. The problem isn’t that Iraqis don’t appreciate this trade-off or that the CPA is perceived as uneven and politically motivated in its application of the law. Rather, what upsets Iraqis is that it is the CPA that reserves the authority to decide when security, or some other value, trumps liberty. In fact, it appears that after the June 30 ‘hand over of sovereignty’ the CPA will keep its authority to enforce Article 14 (the statute allowing the shutting down of media outlets if they are deemed to threaten law and order). The essential problem here is not just whether the CPA’s decisions are fair or proper, but that they get to make the decisions in the first place.

What kind of sovereignty do the Iraqis have if they are not allowed to interpret their own constitution? The contradiction between the logic of occupation and the logic of democracy continues, and will persist so long as the CPA or the coalition force remains in Iraq.

There has been some mainstream press coverage of this issue, although my story in particular has not received a great deal of attention. The New York Times did publish a short summary and snippets of the article in its Sept. 28 – Oct. 4 issue of The Week in Review Reading Desk: The Reading File, section. Other than that, it has not received a great deal of attention. For further information on these topics, the best places to go are independent media watchdog groups like Index on Censorship, http://www.indexonline.org; Reporters Without Borders,http://www.rsf.org and http://www.indymedia.org.

UPDATE BY CHARLIE THOMAS: After Major Charmaine Means was relieved of command, she was reassigned to a stateside post at Fort Bragg. Maj. Gen. David Petraeus was promoted to Lt. General and is back in Iraq in charge of training all Iraqi military and security forces.

Since the seizure of the Mosul TV station, the whole world has become aware of the illegal actions of the U.S. in Iraq. Fresh reports of violations of the Geneva Convention are frequent. Col. David Hogg, in an off-the-cuff remark, noted that U.S. forces routinely take hostages: “…his troops picked up the wife and daughter of an Iraqi lieutenant general. They left a note: ‘If you want your family released, turn yourself in.’” (Washington Post, July 28, ‘03). Article 34 of the Geneva Convention is specific: “The taking of hostages is prohibited.”

Many news outlets reported that U.S. forces kept sick and injured civilians away from the hospitals during the siege of Falluja, but none noted that this behavior is a war crime.

And now comes former Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, a veteran of the invasion of Iraq, reporting that he and his troops were ordered to, and did, fire on unarmed protestors, killing most of them.

After the World Trade Center attack, the U.S. essentially declared itself exempt from international norms. The military is following the civilian leadership: “In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” – White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, 1/25/02 (Memorandum to the President)