By William Fisher
Referring to the US-financed Al Hurra satellite television channel in the Middle East, Edward Djerejian, who was President Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to Israel, asked recently why the region needs another state-run TV network and whether placement of US-produced programs on existing Arab channels might not seem less heavy-handed.
The Iraqi interim government’s one-month closure of the Baghdad bureau of
Al-Jazeera – the most watched TV channel in the area – does nothing at all to answer Djerejian’s question. Or the conclusion of the September 11th Commission that the United States needs to do a better job of communicating its messages.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, “Democracy in Iraq will be won by defending human rights and the people’s right to know, not by
returning to the bad old days of censorship and intimidation of journalists” said IFJ General Secretary, Aidan White.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not a big fan of Al Jazeera. I agree with Michael Young, the Opinion Page Editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, that the channel is “daring, aggressive and timely; but also selective, demagogical and gruesome”.
And I have a certain sympathy with the frustration of the Iraqi authorities, who find that Al-Jazeera has been “showing a lot of crime and criminals on TV. They transferred a bad picture about Iraq and about Iraqis. They have encouraged the criminals and the gangsters to increase their activities in the country," to quote Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib. . "This decision was taken to protect the people of Iraq and the interests of Iraq," Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told a news conference. .
But how is this different from the restrictions placed on the press by authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East – regimes for whom a free Iraq was supposed to be a model?
It isn’t. And, as public policy, it is likely to be counter-productive.
When Iraq was ‘liberated’, dozens of new media outlets – TV channels, radio stations, web blogs, daily and weekly newspapers – suddenly appeared. Long-repressed journalists were overjoyed with their newfound freedom of expression, and print and electronic debate was as lively as one would find in any advanced democracy. Then, the now defunct Coalition Provision Authority closed down the newspaper of Sunni cleric Muqtada El-Sadr, only to find it – and him – more popular when it went underground.
The press freedom race to the bottom began with interim Prime Minister Allawi’s establishment of a new media commission to impose restrictions on print and broadcast media. Under the leadership of Ibrahim Janabi, The Higher Media Commission developed a set of restrictions – called "red lines – for Iraqi media.
The formation of the Commission came amidst government concern that too much media attention is being given to rebel groups. Janabi said his commission exists only to uphold national security, not to meddle in the independent press. “In a difficult security situation, we need to fight the terrorists by all means, and one of the main means is the media,” Janabi told the Financial Times.
One of the banned actions is unwarranted criticism of Prime Minister Allawi. If that sounds familiar, it should be. It is an act also illegal in virtually every country of the Arab Middle East.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent an open letter to Allawi on July 29, saying the Commission is a potential “threat to press freedom.” CPJ urged Janabi to ensure that any actions of the Higher Media Commission comply with international standards of free expression.
“The restrictive media regulations and censorship described by Janabi would undermine the very foundation of a democratic society by restricting the free flow of information,” CPJ Executive Director, Ann J. Cooper, wrote in the letter.
Al-Jazeera said the government’s decision restrains the "right of the Arab people around the world to see a comprehensive picture about what's going on in an important region like Iraq." Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib said the closure was intended to give the station "a chance to re-adjust their policy against Iraq.''
CNN reported, “In an Arab world rife with conspiracy theories, the decision to close the offices of the popular channel could reinforce the perception that decisions by Iraq's interim government are influenced by the United States, which has long complained about Al-Jazeera's coverage.”
This is not the first time Al-Jazeera has been targeted. Iraq's now-disbanded Governing Council, in place during the US occupation, banned the station's reporters from entering its offices or covering its news conferences for a month in January because it had reportedly shown disrespect toward prominent Iraqis. That was the second such ban imposed by the Governing Council on the station.
Al-Jazeera has occasionally run into problems with authorities in other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and the former Iraqi regime. Unlike Arab state-run media, the station often airs views of local opposition figures and their criticisms of their countries' rulers.
Senior US officials also have frequently criticized the station for its coverage of the war in Iraq. They accuse it of being an outlet for the al-Qaida terror network for broadcasting videotapes and audiotapes purportedly from Osama bin Laden or his aides. Al-Jazeera denies the allegations.
But count on this: The absence of Al-Jazeera for the next month will create a news vacuum – which others will surely fill. The way to stop the media from presenting pictures of prisoners being humiliated, or hostages being beheaded, is not to shoot the messenger; it is to stop the abuses.