By Elaine Hargrove-Simon, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor
In the weeks since the fall of Hussein's regime, the media in Iraq have experienced phenomenal growth. L. Paul Bremer III, U.S. Civil Administrator for Iraq, told the Washington Post, "There's been a welcome explosion of new media in this country . . . 15 new newspapers in Baghdad alone in the last couple of weeks." According to the Washington Post, the number of publications in Baghdad alone has reached 70. All of the newspapers advocate an independent Iraq, and most seem to favor democratic-style reforms. A report by the BBC noted that many publications are affiliated
with political parties.
But the content of the newly-free media can be controversial. For example, one newspaper, Al-Haqiqa, has published excerpts from the anti-Semitic tract, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," according to the BBC. According to the Associated Press, the U.S.-led occupation authority is devising a code of conduct for the independent Iraqi press. Coalition officials say that the ethics code is not intended to censor the media, but rather is meant to stifle speech that could incite violence and curb attempts to cultivate a civil society. "There's no room for hateful and destabilizing messages that will destroy the emerging Iraqi democracy," Mike Furlong, a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, told the Associated Press. "All media must be responsible."
The Associated Press reports that Iraqis have protested the imposition of an ethics code, saying it is too similar to censorship under the old regime. "How can they say we have a democracy?" asked Eshta Jassem Ali Yasseri, the editor of a new satirical weekly, Habezbooz. "That's not democracy. It sounds like the same old thing."
Hamid Al-Bayati is a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an organization that publishes a newspaper critical of the coalition's occupation of Iraq. During an interview with the Associated Press, Al Bayati asked rhetorically, "Is there a media code of conduct in the U.S. or U.K.? [Then] why should there be such a thing here?"
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) issued a press release stating that occupation forces in Iraq should not "impose any official controls on the content of the news media in Iraq." The organization argued that inciteful or hateful speech can be moderated in "the marketplace of ideas" and that "any efforts at censorship will backfire and add to the suspicion, resentment and hatred of occupying forces."
Instead, SPJ encourages self-regulation. As the press release stated, "Self-enforcement is the main tenet of the SPJ Code of Ethics." SPJ president Robert Leger is quoted as saying, "Whatever code is established should be voluntary. It could, for example, encourage Iraqi media to point out poor performance by other Iraqi media, such as reprinting false or anti-Semitic material."
A new ethics code may not be the only change in store for the media of Iraq. In early June 2003, an international group of media experts met in Athens to discuss a plan to promote a free press in Iraq. Approximately 70 participants attended, including Iraqi, Arab and Western media lawyers, media policy experts and journalists, according to a PR Newswire release.
The conference was organized by Internews Network and Internews Europe. According to a posting on its Web site at www.internew.org, Internews is a non-profit organization that "fosters independent media in emerging democracies, trains journalists and station managers in the standards and practices of journalism . . . and uses the media to reduce conflict within and between countries."
Press releases posted on Internews' Web site spell out key proposals for a new media framework, which purportedly would "complement efforts of the U.S. administration in Baghdad." The framework includes enacting laws guaranteeing media freedom, abolition of censorship, recommendations for creating an independent broadcasting authority in Iraq, and regulation of broadcasting frequencies. According to the Associated Press, key proposals
- Adopting media laws with penalties for "offenses" such as defamation,
incitement to violence and hate speech. Penalties would range from public
apologies to closure of the media outlet.
- Establishing a council to create a code of conduct for journalists
and to resolve media complaints.
- No licensing of individual journalists, newspapers or magazines.
- Granting the public and the press access to all documents and decisions
concerning U.S.-led interim governing authority.
- Allowing private Internet service providers to operate.
- Turning government newspapers over to independent and private owners.
- Transforming state-owned radio and TV into a public broadcasting system
with editorial independence.