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from issue no. 04 - 2004

IRAQ. Despite everything the number of newspapers and TV stations is increasing.

Voices from chaos. Between reality and propaganda

At the beginning the media boom was promoted and highlighted by those in charge of the operation “Iraqi freedom” as the indication that the seeds of democracy were already germinating in post-Saddam Iraq. Then the wind changed and heavy restrictions were put on bulletins and newspapers. Both those that were spreading misinformation and those criticizing the Coalition or inciting to rebellion

by Gianni Valente

On 18 April last the journalist Assad Khadim and driver Hussein Saleh arrived in Samarra, a hundred kilometers from Baghdad, to take some shots in the city with its famous spiral minaret, when from a check-point controlled by US soldiers and Kurd militiamen came the hail of bullets that killed them. «We were doing what we were supposed to, and in that moment we weren’t even filming», stated the cameraman who accompanied them and escaped injured. A secondary episode in the spiral of blood and chaos that is engulfing Iraq a year after the entry of US tanks into Baghdad. Two names to add to the list of 24 journalists and cameramen killed in Iraq since the beginning of the military campaign “Iraqi freedom”. Were it not for a detail which makes the episode of the unfortunate Assad and Hussein paradoxical. Both worked for Al-Iraqiya, the television network financed by the Pentagon to support the project of democratic normalization under USA leadership. The network that transmits the exclusive interviews with Paul Bremer and other exponents of the provisional Authority, set up to contrast with an “optimistic” and constructive approach the “catastrophism” of the Arab networks of the Gulf, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, considered «violently anti-Coalition» (Rumsfeld), suspended broadcasting for hours after the death of its two employees, transmitting only verses from the Koran, as a «sign of mourning». In short, an unusual case of victims of “friendly fire”. But also an emblem of how military and media events have become entangled in the worsening of the Iraqi crisis.
Baghdad citizens near a sales point for new Iraqi newspapers

Baghdad citizens near a sales point for new Iraqi newspapers

The charge of the hundred newspapers
«With freedom, public opinion polls have also arrived in Iraq. And the newspapers to publish them.» It was 3 June 2003, hardly two months after the statue of Saddam in front of the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad had tumbled into the dust, and in the Weekly Standard, one of the house organs of the US neo-conservatives, the managing editor Claudia Winkler was already greeting with feeling the dawn of democratic and pluralist Iraq which emerged from the data of a poll that found 77% of Iraqis were favorable to the war brought to an end by the “coalition of the willing”. The data were published in the columns of Al-Mutamar, the daily financed by the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi businessman protected by US Vice-president Richard Cheney and by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and therefore sponsored by the Pentagon as the leader of the new post-Saddam Iraq. In the same article, Francis Brook, Chalabi’s US political adviser, on his return from a visit to Iraq, had this to say: «Baghdad is like Manhattan. It already has the feeling of an intellectual, media and economic capital».
Half way through last summer, the luxuriant growth of newspapers and information bulletins had become the favorite topic of the media-politico front which in the previous months had backed the “Iraqi freedom” operation. Seen from afar, through Western eyes, the media boom was highlighted as an indication that the seeds of democracy were already sprouting in post-Saddam Iraq. «I have just returned from Baghdad, and there are a hundred newspapers of the free press in Iraq, a free Iraq where people can say what they want»: thus last September Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld tried to silence the thin group of protestors who heckled him during an official lunch at the National Press Club. A refrain, this of the hundred and more newspapers blossoming in post-war Iraq, taken up and re-echoed throughout the world by the local relays of US neo-conservative thought. While again in October, the British BBC estimated at 210 the number of newspapers and weeklies now gushing forth after thirty years of media subservience to the propaganda of the regime.
In effect, the phenomenon exists. But over the months the interpretation that saw it tout court as the Iraqi version of the cliché of the free press, the Western free press as expression of civil society, became threadbare.
Above, workers in a printing house in Baghdad

Above, workers in a printing house in Baghdad

In the media flood inundating the land of the Tigris and Euphrates many small streams of various provenance merged. A substantial contribution is given by the propaganda organs created by the myriad of parties, lobbies and ethno-religious groups into which the Iraqi political scene shattered once the oppressive hand of the Baath regime unclenched. Tariq-al- Shaab, for example, is the paper of the Iraqi Communist Party, which has come out into the open after decades underground. While Al-Addala (Justice) reflects the opinions of the Supreme Council of the Islamic revolution. And Baghdad is the mouthpiece of the national alliance of Iyad Allawi, a member of the Council of the provisional government. Newspapers with wide circulations were joined by the mass of irregular bulletins with which every militant group armed itself to get their voices heard in the chaotic postwar scenario. An army of propagandistic sheets, often the narrow-minded products of the ethno- religious divisions, little accustomed to respecting the basic rules of the profession, in whose columns clamorous lies, unverified alarms, gratuitous accusations and visceral attacks on opponents often appeared. Such as the fabrication splashed over the front pages of some newspapers last July, according to which the occupiers had paid fifty dollars a day to the former soldiers of the dismantled Iraqi army (riots ensued, with several victims); or the recurrent news of alleged rapes of Iraqi girls by Coalition soldiers, which appeared especially in the newspapers of religious groups. Or the panic spread last summer about SARS allegedly present in various places in Iraq.
False scoops and lies often packaged by so-called journalists and promulgated through the press, after the purging of the three thousand professionals in the pay of the Saddam regime.

Free press or wild press
More even than the amateur fabrications, it was growing intolerance of the occupying forces that united an increasing number of “spontaneous” dailies which contributed to the dismantling of the cliché of the “free Iraqi press”. «The United States want to control the resources of Iraq and substitute internal despotism by occupation, colonialism and submission. The free sons of Iraq cannot accept it», wrote Al-Da’wa, the publication of the Islamic Missionary Party, already on 12 July. A week before, not even three months after the fall of the Baath regime, the newspaper Al-Iraq Al-Iadid, close to the moderate Shiite ayatollah Ali Husseini Al-Sistani, outlined in an editorial the «Negative things of freedom»: «The enthusiasts swore that the Americans would begin on projects for the reconstruction of Iraq after the war… Now it is difficult for them to acknowledge that all these projects were guaranteed only for US companies and to enrich the US economy, and not the Iraqi one… People are discovering that the food rations guaranteed under the civil administration are the same as those distributed by the previous regime …”. A growing resentment often vented in expressions of anti-American hatred, to the point of provoking premature reactions from the United States.
An American  soldier distributing a newspaper in Arabic in the city of Al-Qurna

An American soldier distributing a newspaper in Arabic in the city of Al-Qurna

Ordinance number 14 emitted by the provisional Authority of the Coalition led by Paul Bremer had already in June prohibited the media from transmitting and publishing material which incited to violence against any individual or group, which encouraged civil disorder or attacks «against the Coalition forces». The measure was first applied after only three months of occupation, when the Coalition authorities closed Al-Mustaquila, a twice-weekly publication which on 13 July had exhorted the elimination of «all those who cooperate with the United States», threatening to publish a list of collaborationists to target. The arrested editors still had Baath party membership cards in their pockets. «A sign», the spokesman for the provisional Authority Charles Heatly said on the occasion, «that the paper was not in fact independent». But with the passage of the months the incidents of censorship against the “wild press”, also struck even higher up. For two months Al Arabiya, the powerful pan-Arab network with its headquarters in Dubai, had to close its Iraq offices, accused along with its rival Al Jazeera of fomenting anti-American feeling in the Arab world by its “partisan” reportage. And it was the closure for 60 days, with the accusation of propagating lies and inciting violence, imposed on Al-Houza, the paper tied to the Shiite religious leader Moqtada Al Sadr, which sparked the revolt of his militia in Najaf at the beginning of April. It was on April 12 itself that the Coalition announced the creation of the Commission for Media and Communications in Iraq (ICMC) to replace the Ministry of Information of Saddam’s time. The new body, led and directed by the Kurd Siyamend Zaid Othman (who worked for Amnesty International for six years), is supposed to issue licenses only to «the media who work in accordance with the professional ethical code».
The direction of the Pentagon
But the initiative of the Coalition in the media field does not stop at censorship of the “wild spontaneity” initially lauded. Already last July a study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld from the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggested to the provisional government of the Coalition that they adopt more efficient strategies of communication to explain their own point of view amid the rising choir of hostile voices. But up until now in Iraq, the great US tradition of utilizing the media in situations of emergency and conflict has not paid off, the tradition that produced such memorable instruments as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
In the case of Iraq, the anomalies of the US media strategy begin in the director’s box, entirely in the hands of the Pentagon and without any involvement of the State Department or of other government bodies. And it was the Department of Defense that in the weeks after the fall of Saddam financed the creation of the Iraqi Media Network, the company which controls the television network Al-Iraqiya already mentioned, a pair of radio stations and some newspapers, and entrusted it with “media operations” in the occupied country. But the management of the network was given to a consultant society of the Pentagon, with a contract worth 82 million dollars, the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), more specialized in the control and orientation of information than in reporting. So interviews taken live from Iraqis in the street, too often critical of the US presence, were immediately cut from the initial programming of Al- Iraqiya. Statements and interviews with Bremer, translated from English, replaced the repetitions of Saddam’s speeches put out by the TV of the former regime. US sit-coms dubbed into Arabic took the place of Egyptian soaps. With the result that Al-Iraqiya, even though covering 85% of the territory, was outclassed in the audience ratings by the Arab satellite networks indigestible to the provisional Administration (the sale of parabolic antennas, as mentioned above, is one of the principal businesses in post war Iraq). «The Iraqi Media network has become an irrelevant spokesman for the propaganda of the provisional Administration, with manipulated news and mediocre foreign programs», acknowledges Don North, through previously one of the principal consultants of the network set up by the Pentagon. A media flop which the SAIC paid for by the loss of its contract, given over in January 2004 with a renewal of 92 million dollars to the Harris Corporation, a communications company based in Florida.

Voices from chaos
Beyond all the self-important ideological schematics and despite all the censorship and the propaganda, everyday life in the post-war runs hotly through the pages of the much quoted and seldom read Iraqi newspapers. In the daily press review of the Iraqi Press Monitor, accessible on the internet site of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, news about attacks and battles mingles with that on the petty feuds between the members of the government Council, waiting to know who will be designated for the presidency for the next two months. It’s enough to skim the summary of the articles of any single day to become aware of the present impasse, where reproaches against the occupying forces for the errors of the past shade off into uncertainty about the timing and modes of the promised transition. «The sovereignty which will be granted to Iraq after 30 June will be incomplete and uncertain. It will be a mere change of name… The choice of the buildings for the US embassy, located in the presidential headquarters of the previous government, shows clearly who controls sovereignty», the independent daily Addustour declared on 18 April. On the same day the paper of the Iraqi communist party, Tarik-al-Shaab, echoed that: «The contradiction lies in the fact that the Americans have created a situation which has led to chaos, and which gives them the possibility of remaining here to protect the Iraqis from the terrorists… The occupiers’ policy offers the enemies of freedom an enormous chance to reorganize themselves…». While Al-Sabah, a daily linked to the provisional Authority of the Coalition, describes the design chosen for the new Iraqi flag: «Two blue stripes, symbol of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the crescent moon which refers to Iraq as an Islamic State, and a yellow stripe to symbolize Kurdistan…» A design immediately challenged by Asharq al Awsat, a Saudi daily published in London: “It looks similar to the Israeli flag, which has two blue stripes representing the Euphrates and the Nile, a white background, and a religious symbol” …

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