Exporting Censorship to Iraq

From the start, problems small and large plagued the Pentagon's media project in Iraq. The Iraqi Media Network (IMN), as it is known, is an American-run outfit contracted by the Pentagon to put out news after Saddam Hussein's fall. Its mission was twofold: to be both a PBS-style broadcaster and a means for the occupying authorities to communicate with Iraqis. But getting going wasn't easy. There were bombed-out facilities to reconstruct, transmitters to build, and a staff to hire and rehire when many left for better wages as interpreters or translators. Tapes didn't match with recording machines; recording machines didn't match with broadcasting equipment. There were power outages and battery shortages, and no money to buy new programming. "We were even using the videotape collection of [Hussein's sons] Uday and Qusay," says Don North, a senior TV adviser to the IMN.

Those problems led to more problems. Ahmad al-Rikabi, a former London bureau chief of Radio Free Iraq, quit as head of IMN TV and returned to London because he thought the IMN was allotted inadequate resources and was losing to Iranian television the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. In July, IMN staff went on strike to protest working for 35 days without pay. North, on medical leave as of this writing, has reservations about returning because of the dodgy way the IMN has been run. And when the IMN's program manager, Mike Furlong, and its government liaison, Robert Reilly, left after their initial contracts expired, they were inexplicably replaced by a man with no media experience whatsoever, John Sandrock.

But for all these practical shortcomings, bigger problems were inherent in the very nature of the undertaking. On the one hand, the American presence in Iraq was intended to nurture basic democratic liberties. On the other, as an occupying power, the Americans needed to root out the Baathist regime and eradicate support for its values. For the IMN, that meant serving as a model for a free press while at the same time ensuring that anti-American and pro-Baathist sentiments did not flourish on air. And it's between that rock and a hard place that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American-orchestrated transitional body running postwar Iraq, ran into trouble.

As criticism of his authority appeared in Iraqi media, occupying authority chief L. Paul Bremer III placed controls on IMN content and clamped down on the independent media in Iraq, closing down some Iraqi-run newspapers and radio and television stations. Those actions led to charges by Iraqis and external observers that the Americans were touting liberty but ruling by tyranny. "You have this dynamic of nonexistent planning, no clear goals, uncertain allocation plans and failure," says Anthony Borden, executive director of the Institute on War and Peace Reporting, about the entire media undertaking. Under the best of circumstances, managing the media in a newly destabilized Iraq would have been a tricky balancing act. But as a result of mismanagement and general confusion on the part of the Bush administration about the nature of American power in Iraq, the job has become harder than it needed to be.

The contradiction between encouraging democratic values and ruling by force was built into the IMN's very origins. Early this year, the Pentagon hired not a media outlet but a San Diego-based defense contractor, the Scientific Applications International Corp. (SAIC), to develop a multimedia operation in postwar Iraq. Although this new outfit was intended to become a kind of public broadcasting system, The SAIC's orientation was more toward information control: One of SAIC's specializations, for example, is "Information Dominance/Command and Control." The IMN was created in April, and it wasn't 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 of the Koran as part of cultural programming. In the middle of the summer, against North's objections, the Americans forced IMN TV to run an hour-long program on recently issued occupying authority laws. The program was produced by the CPA-run interim justice ministry without journalists' participation and repeated much of the information presented in another hour-long segment on the subject that had been hosted by al-Rikabi. "It was an interest group massaging [itself] without a journalist being a host," says North. "A lot of Iraqis I know saw what a farce it was. That was the sort of thing that was degrading the quality of journalism at IMN and making it less credible."

The IMN has also said that it wants to take over the offices of the independent television broadcasting station in Mosul. In early May, the Pentagon wanted to seize the station for including Al-Jazeera in its broadcast. The officer in charge refused to carry out the order because she didn't want to intimidate the station's journalists. Now the American authority wants direct control over the facilities so it can have a broadcasting foothold in northern Iraq, despite the fact that the station has aired more hours of IMN programming than the occupying authority demands. But it also wants to be able to run its own programs, all of which conform to the authority's content guidelines. "Rough but perfectly serviceable Iraqi stations are being swallowed up or chased off air by IMN," wrote Rohan Jayasekera for Index on Censorship, an international media-watchdog group. Jayasekera, who visited Iraq in late spring, adds, "Iraqi broadcasters outside the IMN loop are scathing about IMN's own broadcast record, but appear powerless to stop the IMN from having its way." It's no wonder that Iraqis have seen the IMN as more of a propaganda outlet than a news station, and turned to stations like Al-Jazeera and Iran's Al-Alam.

Much of this is the result of the American authority's confusion over the IMN's purpose: Can it be both the occupiers' mouthpiece and a PBS-style network at the same time? Even Furlong, who was program manager for the first three months and generally supports U.S. efforts in Iraq, admits there is a conceptual problem. "Both roles can't be done by the same animal," he says. John Langlois, senior media adviser for USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, agrees, saying, "IMN or any other entity that must act as a voice for a governing authority is always going to have difficulty coming across as an objective public broadcaster."

The Iraqis aren't waiting for the Americans to figure all this out. Many private media have already developed since Hussein's downfall. At the same time, some of these have proven decidedly hostile to their purported liberators: In July, for example, the Shia newspaper Al-Mustaqila ran an article headlined "Death to all spies and those who cooperate with the U.S.; killing them is a religious duty." How should the Americans respond to such threats? Bremer's team has erred on the side of caution rather than liberty. In June, 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. According to the Index on Censorship, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus admitted to reporters in Iraq that "what we are looking at is censorship, but you can censor something that is intended to inflame passions." Under these rules, Al-Mustaqila, after running its anti-American article, was closed down.

But according to a number of observers inside and outside Iraq, other cases have not been so clear cut, the appeals process has been practically nonexistent and the CPA rules are written so broadly that they could ban almost any criticism of the American authority. This summer, an Iraqi newspaper in Najaf and radio station in Baghdad were closed, though the administration reveals few details about why. In another case, an Iraqi newspaper published an article comparing Bremer to Hussein -- but anonymously, for fear it would be interpreted as an incitement. "I suspect that they often don't understand how journalism works," says North about the occupying authority. Indeed, Bremer issued his rules in part as a response to a false story about soldiers raping two Iraqi girls, even though the newspaper that ran the story fired the responsible reporters when the error was discovered. It would be better, advises North, to meet speech with counter-speech rather than the censor's gavel. Not to mention that closing down media outlets may do more to inflame passions than letting them publish amid the sea of independent outfits.

The occupying authority has taken some of these criticisms to heart. It 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. Still, the commission will have its limits. That's because the real problem isn't that the Iraqis don't understand the need for media regulation; it's that the regulations are not a product of the will and interests of the Iraqis themselves. And that's a problem that's likely to endure as long as the Americans are the ones doing the regulating. According to the Index on Censorship, Bremer, reflecting on the new freedoms in Iraq, told journalists in June there that they were no longer constrained by the government and were now "free to criticize whoever, or whatever, you want."

Except, of course, the liberators themselves.