Only good news, please

by John Quiggin on August 10, 2004

The Allawi government’s decision to ban Al-Jazeera has received a lot of attention. Rather less has been paid to a subsequent announcement of a wide range of rules to be applied by the new Higher Media Commission. Prominent among them is a prohibition of “unwarranted criticism” of Allawi himself. This was reported in Australia’s Financial Review and also in the Financial Times (both subscription only) and also in a number of Arab and antiwar papers, but not in any of the general mainstream press.

For those inclined to a “slippery slope” view of censorship, this is certainly a case study.

Here’s a protest letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

{ 10 comments }

1

Doug 08.10.04 at 8:36 am

Proof will be in the eating of course, but consider that Die Zeit and Der Spiegel owe their existence to the ability to get licenses to operate from the then occupation authorities (one in the British zone, one the American iirc). Numerous European countries also have laws setting boundaries about the criticism that can be leveled at the state’s highest officers. Laws prohibiting things such as “incitement of religious or ethnic hatred” are also not uncommon. Laws prohibiting the exhibition or, in some cases, sale of totalitarian regalia (Nazi, Communist) are also common. In at least one instance, attempts were made to enforce these laws extraterritorially. Application will be key of course, but the existence of such regulations doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that rulers are looking to protect a fragile state. A comparison with Bosnia might be instructive, if instructive is what you would like to be.

2

Lance Boyle 08.10.04 at 11:06 am

If you’d like to be Bosnia.
All states are fragile now.
Slippery precipice, rather.

3

momo 08.10.04 at 1:30 pm

doug, what are you talking about?

In some European countries there’s laws about insult and contempt of authority, if that’s what you were referring to, but they simply mean that if you go up to a policeman or magistrate and call him a wanker, it is a legal offense. I don’t think such offenses should exist, because laws about libel and defamation already apply to all citizens, but for one thing those insult laws are obsolete and basically never used, and secondly they don’t prevent any level of criticism, certainly not against politicians and members of parliament because they don’t even apply to them. (Not to mention, members of parliament are the first to get to insults against each other).

European laws on hate speech are laws on hate speech such as that of neofascist groups or hooligans, they’re not laws curbing freedom of the press, and banning nazi displays has nothing to do with that either.

All of the above is not even remotely related to Allawi’s ban of any “unwarranted criticism”. If you want to justify that, go ahead, but please at least avoid comparing apples and oranges. And there’s no comparison to the American occupation post-WWII either. Please. It’s a completely different context. They didn’t put up puppet regimes that started banning things, either.

Is Allawi so worthy of being defended that we need to crap on the good things American did in the past?

4

momo 08.10.04 at 1:42 pm

There’s an overview of the media situation in Iraq from Reporters Sans Frontieres though it doesn’t mention this particular ban. There were similar prohibitions already in place before, a decree on “hostile media” opening up loose interpretations of the idea of “incitement”.

“Nous voulons une presse libre”, avait assuré, le 11 juin 2003, un porte-parole de l’Autorité intérimaire américaine, indiquant que ce décret “n’a pas pour objectif de restreindre cette liberté, mais de limiter le recours à la violence (…) et de préserver la sécurité en Irak”. Si un tel décret semble nécessaire au regard de l’instabilité politique dans le pays, reste à savoir si les forces de la coalition feront une interprétation raisonnable, ou au contraire excessive, de la notion d'”incitation à la violence”. En l’absence de système judiciaire, seules l’armée américaine ou l’Autorité intérimaire de la coalition (CPA) sont autorisées à poursuivre et condamner les médias. La coalition est donc à la fois juge et partie. Elle surveille, pénalise et éventuellement réprime pour des offenses commises à son encontre. La procédure d’appel est peu convaincante. Elle ne prévoit pas l’intervention d’une instance indépendante des forces de la coalition puisque la seule procédure d’appel est l’envoi d’une lettre de protestation à l’Autorité intérimaire. Deux médias auraient été suspendus à ce jour au nom de ce décret.

5

dsquared 08.10.04 at 3:06 pm

Application will be key of course, but the existence of such regulations doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that rulers are looking to protect a fragile state

Out of interest, how does this differ from the position that “the Iraqis aren’t ready for democracy”, which so many constructed antiwar strawmen seem to hold?

6

Barry 08.10.04 at 3:13 pm

Simple. It’s a newer argument. Most of the pro-war arguments are what I’ll call ‘fragile’. Time is not kind to them. This means that a steady supply of new arguments is needed. ‘Protecting a fragile state’ has potential, IMHO. Sort of like how the USSR could punish ‘counter-revolutionaries’ even 60 years after the revolution, or how a ‘temporary’ state of emergency could a long, long time.

7

dsquared 08.10.04 at 3:19 pm

I’m inclined not to be too hard on the “protecting a fragile state” argument, because the more often it is made, the more fun I will be able to have when the discussion turns to the subject of Cuba.

8

Joel 08.11.04 at 12:54 am

Is Al-Jazeera banned in any other Arab states? Or non-Arab states in the region, for that matter?

9

momo 08.11.04 at 9:15 am

There was an English version of the RSF report quoted in my previous comment, I hadn’t seen it earlier:

The Iraqi media three months after the war : A new but fragile freedom

“We want a free media,” a CPA spokesman said on 11 June, saying the order was not intended to curb freedom but to rein in violence and preserve security. Such a measure may seem necessary because of current political instability but it remains to be seen if the Coalition forces will interpret “incitement to violence” reasonably or excessively. In the absence of a legal system, the US army and the CPA have the authority to prosecute and punish the media.
The CPA monitors, prosecutes and sometimes punishes offences committed against it. The appeal procedure is hardly credible, since it rules out any independent body and simply consists of sending a protest letter to the CPA.
Two media outlets have been suspended so far under the order.

10

Moiz 08.13.04 at 4:13 am

Why does iraqi interim government or any other state has to ban any form of media? unless of course it fears that the channel will tell the people something that state doesn’t want them to hear. In other words to hide its mistakes and spread its propaganda witout any fear. This is called indoctrination.

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