Media War: The Rise of a New Dictatorship in Iraq?

The forcible shutting down of the Al-Arabiya news channel in Baghdad is the first act of a new dictatorship shedding its teeth in the increasingly undemocratic Iraq.

What is a dictatorship? A classic definition clarifies that it is "a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator (not restricted by a constitution or laws or opposition etc.)."

Let us examine the situation in Iraq.

There is a US-appointed government called the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). It is comprised of foreign-bred, foreign-educated, foreign-financed autocrats. Most do not carry Iraqi citizenship, but US, British and Australian passports. Most had never set foot in Iraq before April of this year.

All are protected by their local security guards and a heavy US security detail. Some of the council members have their own private little armies. Galal Talabani and Masoud Barazani, both rival Kurdish leaders, maintain highly-equipped armies of peshmerga who at one point fought Saddam’s armies, and at several junctions, one another. Ahmad Chalabi, who is wanted on charges of fraud and embezzlement in neighboring Jordan (he was sentenced to 20 years in absentia), has his own army of Iraqi opposition who were trained by the CIA and wear American-made uniforms and wield American-made weaponry.

They claim to represent the Iraqi people, but the average Iraqi had never heard of them before they arrived on US transport planes from Kuwait in April.

They are such a squabbling lot that they share a rotating presidency. They are not bound by laws or a constitution. Any opposition to the IGC is dealt with swiftly. In the wake of Saddam’s demise, some 300 newspapers and magazines sprouted in the "new, free" Iraq. Some focused on social issues, while others focused on the rights of Iraqi minorities, such as the Assyrians or the Sabaeans.

Some, however, took the courageous step of cherishing their new-found freedom and launched political newspapers. Almost immediately, they were warned not to criticize the IGC nor take a position calling on Iraqis to resist working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

During the past summer, journalists coming out of Iraq spoke of harassed Iraqi editors and writers, the trashing of print shops, and the arresting of independent Iraqi writers. Threats of security were cited – sounds eerily familiar to the classic version of Arab despotic regimes.

In September, an Iraqi editor who fiercely criticized the IGC, the US forces and Saddam’s former regime was shot dead while standing on his roof. No formal investigation was launched, no one detained. US forces simply blamed "former regime terrorist elements" and shrugged their shoulders. Mosul residents, however, painted a far more dire picture. They claimed that the murdered editor was killed because he was on the verge of detailing corruption charges against IGC members.

Since September, three newspapers in Mosul were shut down; other newspaper editors feared for their lives and gave up their quest for a free press. Eleven newspapers have been shut down in Baghdad.

During the same period, 16 journalists have been killed in Iraq. Fourteen of those have been killed by direct US action.

The Al Jazeera all-news channel says its reporters and cameramen have been arrested 18 times while on assignment in Iraq since the beginning of the war in March. Imagine the outrage had Iran detained a CNN crew, or had Saudi Arabia interrogated a FOX reporter. Every editorial in North America would have screamed bloody murder and called for independent investigations and sanctions against those nations, and called for freedom of access and freedom of the press.

In Iraq, which is meant to be on its way to a pluralistic democracy, as President Bush has envisioned, the rules are different. No freedom of the press just yet, no dissent, no public outcry. Just behave like good little ragheads and we won’t hurt you.

On the 12th of November, The New Zealand Herald reported the following:

American soldiers handcuffed and firmly wrapped masking tape around an Iraqi man’s mouth as they arrested him today for speaking out against occupation troops.

Asked why the man had been arrested and put into the back of a Humvee vehicle on Tahrir Square, the commanding officer told Reuters at the scene: "This man has been detained for making anti-coalition statements."

In April, when US invading forces were poised on the outskirts of Baghdad, Al Jazeera journalist Tareq Ayyoub was gunned while standing outside the Baghdad Al Jazeera office by US troops. The same day, Spaniard Jose Couso for Spain’s Telecinco was killed when US tanks shelled the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad. Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian television cameraman for Reuters, was killed in the same incident.

US forces have not been held accountable, nor assumed responsibility, for the killing and detention of journalists in Iraq. It is worth mentioning that the US has signed no treaty that holds its military responsible for war crimes. While an Austrian army colonel may be held for a war crime if he tortures a Rwandan prisoner (let’s consider for the sake of argument), a US colonel torturing an Iraqi will not be handed over to an international court.

US military investigations concluded in the above attacks on journalists that "US forces reacted appropriately in a hostile environment" in all of the above cases. The findings have enraged human rights and international journalists’ groups.

Many within journalism circles have accused US forces of trying to thwart the unfettered access and broadcast of information pertaining to the situation in Iraq.

Also on November 12, Slobodan Lekic of the Associated Press news agency (AP) wrote:

With casualties mounting in Iraq (news – web sites), jumpy U.S. soldiers are becoming more aggressive in their treatment of journalists covering the conflict.

Media people have been detained, news equipment has been confiscated and some journalists have suffered verbal and physical abuse while trying to report on events…Reuters television cameraman Mazen Dana was killed while videotaping near a U.S.-run prison on the outskirts of Baghdad following a mortar attack.

The military later said the troops had mistaken Dana’s camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. An investigation concluded the soldiers "acted within the rules of engagement," although the U.S. Army has never publicly announced those rules, citing security reasons.

The latest attack on press freedoms came when the IGC ordered the Al-Arabiya news station shut down, accusing it of promoting murder and chaos in Iraq. According to the (AP) "[the] State Department defended the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council’s banning of a major Arab television station, saying Monday that the aim was to try ‘to avoid a situation where these media are used as a channel for incitement.’" Al-Arabiya aired an audio-tape of Saddam last week, which many feel is the real reason the move against the network was taken.

That’s funny. Consider the hatred and vitriol against all things Arab and Islamic on North American radio, talk-shows, the FOX network among others. No, American journalism is beyond compare and cannot be scrutinized.

But there is method to this madness. In 1931, a young Adolf Hitler learned the value of the media. A powerful media could control the people, move them when needed, silence them when needed. This is called propaganda.

Last month, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld charged that Arab media in Iraq was "violently anti-coalition." Apparently, showing images of girls being frisked by US soldiers, an affront to Muslims and Arabs, is anti-coalition. Apparently, giving voice to Iraqi civilians who complain that they were beaten, or showing old men being pushed around and forced to strip by anxious US soldiers is anti-coalition.[i]

Arab networks have been bringing audiences news that their North American counterparts have sensitized and censored. The burning of Iraqi farms as a measure of collective punishment, the razing of fields, the demolition of family homes, the humiliation of Iraqis – are all stories North American viewers do not get to see. Now, the IGC and the CPA want to ensure that Arab audiences don’t see them either.

(Last month, the BBC criticized North American coverage of the war as being sensitized.)

A controlled media is the very first lesson in effective dictatorship. Have we all forgotten our Orwellian and Machiavellian lessons?

So, what’s Rumsfeld’s solution? According to AP, Rumsfeld "said a satellite channel controlled by the U.S. government would begin broadcasts next month."

Maybe Rumsfeld would do well to heed the Iraqi public’s tastes: "Two hundred Iraqis vented their anger in Baghdad on Wednesday against what they called ‘immodest images’ on the coalition-run national television," said the BBC on November 19.[ii]

If outside control is acceptable to American conscience then I suggest the US public be given a television station controlled by Mauritania. By stating that Iraqis will have someone else determine their programming, Rumsfeld takes a racist and ethnocentric approach to the issue.

The above article is sure to incite fury and anger because it presents a side of the occupation most do not want to hear. Consequently, this writer receives death threats and various forms of hate mail. To those who find the above contrary to their inbred beliefs, consider an old Sioux adage which says walk a mile in a man’s moccasin before you learn to judge him. Would the average American citizen appreciate the silencing of a newspaper because it publishes articles critical of Congress? Or would a British citizen appreciate if Buckingham Palace ordered all stories of the royal family entirely removed from the public eye?

Censorship of the media in the West is intolerable. Why is it then acceptable for Iraqis who only seek to air their views and find alternate forms of information?

To make things worse, The New York Times reported on November 25th that the IGC is trying to wedge its way out of its commitment to relinquishing control to an elected Iraqi body.

But Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who is serving as president of the council this month, said in an interview Monday that a majority of the council members "want to keep the Governing Council as it is now." Some council members who oppose this idea say they believe that the proposal is being promoted by members who are afraid that they may not fare well in the coming elections. Opponents of the idea also say they fear that staying on will be a public relations disaster for the nascent rebuilt Iraqi state.

A new dictatorship is in the making in Iraq. History lessons are being tossed aside. The Iraq policy is going sour for both the CPA and IGC. A great crime is being committed against the Iraqi people. And they don’t want you to know.