Democracy Through Censorship

It is often said of the Palestinians, and not without justice, that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Something similar might be said of the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq, now fretting and fuming about the difficulties of establishing order and security in a country just beginning to feel its oats after decades of brutal totalitarian rule.

So after all those decades some of the Iraqi media are rambunctious to the point of being close to irresponsible or peddling lies or disinformation. So one newspaper reprints the hoary and discredited "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and another runs a headline that says – gasp! – "Under America’s watch: raping, killing, burning, looting"? What a marvelous opportunity to teach by example and inaction that a society can survive occasional media irresponsibility – even wholesale lying or making things up, as happened recently at the venerable New York Times – and somehow manage to survive. The important thing is that all media have the freedom to pursue truth in their own way.

If there’s anything that might be useful to the development of a more robust civil society from all this, it might be to hold up irresponsible media reports as an example of the need for informed citizens to be skeptical not only about government statements but about the media as well. That’s a pretty good, perhaps even essential foundation for a society that aspires to anything resembling democracy or liberty.

Of course, the occupation forces missed the opportunity, and if anything did the precise opposite of anything minimally useful.

EXCUSE FOR A CRACKDOWN

The United States occupation forces instead chose a profoundly peculiar way to teach Iraq about the glories of democracy. The Coalition Provisional Authority is hard at work on a code of conduct for those exuberant Iraqi media. We’re all for freedom and democracy, you see, but they have to be controlled – not by Iraqi voters or even Iraqi interest groups, but by foreign occupation forces endowed with supernatural wisdom and judgment – and access to tanks and guns.

These U.S. and international bureaucrats really know best. How can a democratic society emerge if the press is free enough to be sometimes irresponsible?

Or, as one Mike Furlong, a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority told the Associated Press: "There’s no room for hateful and destabilizing messages that will destroy the emerging Iraqi democracy. All media outlets must be responsible."

I did not make that up. I promise you.

TWO-PRONGED APPROACH

It isn’t just ambitious bureaucrats in occupation offices in Baghdad who are dreaming up ways to exert control over Iraqi media. A group of purported legal and media experts have met in Greece under the auspices of the U.S. State Department to develop a code of conduct for the Iraqi media. Among the ideas: pass laws with penalties for hate speech, defamation or incitement to violence, set up a council to draw up a code of conduct, hear complaints and regulate the media.

Not much imagination there, however. The Athens-based group would not require licenses for newspapers, magazines and individual journalists, just for the electronic media. Why the differentiation? More than likely because that’s the way it happened in the United States. Accidents of history and incidents of effective propagandizing become the standard by which other countries are judged. Who needs logic or rethinking of the issues?

Naheed Mehta, a coalition spokesman, said the code-makers in Baghdad didn’t want to censor the media. They just want to, as AP put it, "stifle intemperate speech that could incite violence and hinder efforts to build a civil society." He also said that while he wasn’t aware of the efforts of the group in Greece, "there’s no reason why that can’t feed into our work." Would-be censors can use all the ideas they can get on how to suppress the ideas of other people.

NO TRIGGER NEEDED

Unfortunately, this impulse to censor the media – and let us be clear, when a government or de facto government entity exerts control and imposes penalties on a media outlet, that is censorship – is hardly new. In fact, it is likely that the mechanisms for developing a code of conduct for media and implementing official censorship were in place long before any Iraqi media outlet did anything that could be interpreted as irresponsible or an incitement to violence. These US/international bureaucrats have some practice at trying to rein in journalists, and they’re inclined to view control by proper authorities as a positive good rather than an unspeakable outrage.

Western occupation of Bosnia and Kosovo, which is still ongoing, has featured similar efforts to control the media by writing codes of conduct and establishing penalties for journalists or media outlets that run afoul of the governing authorities (as well as blatant efforts to manipulate elections). In April 1998, as detailed in Fool’s Errands by Gary Dempsey and Roger Fontaine, the Bosnian Office of the High Representative (isn’t it fascinating what bloated titles these pompous pipsqueaks create for themselves?) created a media commission with the power to shut down or fine radio stations, television stations or newspapers it decided were engaging in reporting or editorializing that would hinder the implementation of the sacrosanct Dayton Agreement.

The Independent Media Commission (!) was headed by a non-Bosnian and funded mostly by the United States. In April 1999 it ordered Kanal S TV in Republika Srpska off the air after it aired an appeal from Sarajevo University students requesting fellow citizens to join them in protests against NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia. The IMC also mandated that certain officially-approved "news" would have to be covered. It ordered Bosnian Serb television to carry an address by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (remember her?) defending NATO actions.

After the April 2000 municipal elections, the IMC found five Bosnian TV broadcasters in violation of its holy "Code on Media Rules in Elections" and fined them. During the run-up to October 2000 elections, the occupation authorities dismissed the board of governors of the main Bosnian Serb television station and installed a new board.

So international bureaucrats working hand-in-glove with U.S. international workers have a certain amount of experience at media censorship – systematic and unapologetic, imposed in the name of upholding "international standards." The floating assemblage of international bureaucrats on the make that constitute what most media choose to call the "international community" has never been shy about believing it has superior wisdom and the right to impose it upon benighted provincials everywhere.

A DEEPER DESIRE

This conviction that the way to establish "democracy" is to begin with detailed rules, regulations, codes, and commissions of enforcers should also give us an insight into the way many American officials who work in other countries would operate in this country if there were no pesky First Amendment and long tradition of press freedom to get in their way. If their first impulse in another country is to regulate the media, do you suppose they don’t secretly wish they could do it at home?

Regulation of the media by international bodies, of course, is hardly a new aspiration. Back in the 1980s it was UNESCO, the UN agency, that wanted an international code of conduct and international licensing. The issue then was the contention by some third world countries that the international western press consisted mainly of roving journalists who went from one violent crisis to another and never put conflicts in context or stayed around to report on the marvelous development initiatives various governments were pushing. As a result the western world got a skewed vision of third world countries and might be inclined not to appreciate their problems and triumphs properly.

There was something to this criticism, of course, but the sensible response is "welcome to reality." Any organization with anything other than a limitless budget is going to have to make choices, and the result will be that it skimps on certain things. To try to solve it through an international licensing, supervisory and monitoring agency (with power to impose punitive penalties) is not only subversive of the idea of press freedom, it would probably have had perverse effects. Rather than work under such rigors, many news organizations would have cut back on international coverage even more, leaving perhaps one or two international press agencies, fewer journalists available to have the time to try to soak up a little context, and even worse coverage in the end.

But bad ideas designed to increase centralized power never seem to die. The UNESCO proposal in the 1980s eventually died, but many of its elements were applied in Bosnia, and now the American occupiers want to apply them in Iraq. If they are successful they will send the message worldwide, through actions, which are more eloquent than words, that what the United States means by a "free press" in a "democracy" is a press strictly controlled by the government, forbidden to say anything controversial or offensive, and safely on a government leash.

Of course, looking at the lapdog media who inhabit the Imperial City, perhaps you can’t blame these budding bureaucrats for thinking that being safe promoters of the government and working more often to squelch dissent than to encourage it is the natural function of a "free" press. Unfortunately, it’s one of the possible outcomes. A free press is free to be bad or inadequate.

These wannabe press overlords should fold up their tents and slink home.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).