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Occupation and Censorship

Sewage is coming through the manhole covers, there’s still only 15 hours electricity a day and anarchy grips the streets of Baghdad, but yesterday America’s toothless Iraqi “interim council” roared like a lion, issuing a set of restrictions and threats–against the press, of course.

Aimed primarily at the Arab satellite channels al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, which always air Saddam Hussein’s tape recordings, the almost Orwellian rules — each of which begins with the words “do not” — mean Iraqi or foreign press and television news organisations can be closed if they “advocate the return of the Baath party or issue any statements that represent the Baath directly or indirectly [sic]”.

The council, which was appointed by Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, admitted yesterday that it had consulted his legal advisers before issuing its set of restrictions. True to the chaos that governs Baghdad, the council’s spokesman Intefadh Qanbar–Ahmed Chalabi’s man–initially said al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya were to be closed in Iraq. Within two hours, news emerged that the two Arabic-language channels would be punished for their alleged transgressions by being refused all co-operation from the “interim council” for two weeks–a punishment many journalists here would wish to have inflicted on them.

But the list nevertheless provides an intriguing reflection on the “democracy” that Mr Bremer–who ordered his legal advisers to draw up censorship rules in the late spring–wishes to bestow on Iraqis.

Some of the restrictions are so self-evident as to be naive. “Do not incite violence against any person or group,” for example, could have been enshrined in any civil law. But the references to the Baath party are clearly intended to prevent Iraqis hearing Saddam’s voice. The rule shows just how fearful the US authorities have become of his sympathisers.

After telling the world that most Iraqis are delighted with their “liberation” and forthcoming “democracy”, the authorities are obviously aware that many Iraqis don’t feel that way at all. Journalists must also inform the authorities of “any acts of sabotage, criminal activity, terrorism or any violent action … before or after an attack takes place”.

Journalists–even those with al-Jazeera–do not receive advance warning of ambushes. The rule is in effect asking them to become assistants to the occupation authorities.

There have been instances in the flourishing new Iraqi free press–there are now more than 100 newspapers in Baghdad–of incitement to “jihad” against the occupation authorities and false information on the behaviour of American troops. As it is, even reporting yesterday’s killing–or killings–near Falujah by a missile-firing American helicopter could fall into “incitement to violence”. US forces say they came under fire from a house in the city and killed “one enemy” (sic). But hospital doctors gave the names of three men killed, all members of the same family.

Robert Fisk is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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