Free the Iraqi Press!
by Stephen Schwartz
AS IF THE COALITION in Iraq didn't have enough problems, on May 3 most of the staff of al-Sabah (Morning), the daily newspaper published with support from the Coalition Provisional Authority, walked out. Ismael Zayer, the paper's editor in chief, announced that a new, independent daily would be established, to be called al-Sabah al-Jedid (New Morning). Zayer moved his newsroom to a private house.
The story of al-Sabah, which claimed the largest daily circulation of any newspaper in Iraq, dramatizes numerous questions about how the Coalition can help construct a modern, stable, prosperous, and democratic country on the ruins of the Saddam dictatorship. These include: Can Iraqis be trusted to build new institutions? How responsible will Iraqis be in handling media? How much do foreigners need to control? Or can foreign officials simply act as mentors and advisers? Even after the scheduled "Iraqification" on June 30, such questions will remain.
Iraq now has between 100 and 200 newspapers and newsmagazines, depending on who counts. Iraqi media are often dismissed as low in quality; those who want to judge for themselves can read English-language summaries of front-page newspaper stories published daily by the Iraqi Press Monitor, at iwpr.net/index.pl?iraq_ipm_index.html. Al-Sabah itself has a website with an English page at alsabaah.com. There is also a considerable number of independent English-language websites and blogs coming out of Iraq.
Al-Sabah was created in May 2003, after the liberation of Iraq, with help from the Mare Foundation, a Netherlands NGO with a history of supporting Iraqi journalists in exile (marefoundation.org). Zayer himself had worked in Europe as a journalist for years. Early on, al-Sabah became one of three media outlets maintained by the CPA under the umbrella of the Iraqi Media Network (IMN), the other two being a television channel, al-Iraqiyah, and a radio network.
The IMN has inherited the staff and facilities of the Ministry of Information of the former Saddam regime. This is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to personnel. Under many dictators, media and other professionals have had to accept submission, against their will and conscience, in order to survive. Many of these people can be trusted to work as responsible journalists under free conditions. More problematic is the legacy of bureaucratic government control over the media sector.
Al-Sabah and the TV and radio components of the Iraqi Media Network have been administered since mid-January 2004 by the U.S.-based Harris Corporation, a producer of communications equipment. When the contract to run the IMN was put up for bid in the United States, however, it specified that the daily newspaper would be independent within a year, operating free of American subsidy, and on course to be privatized.
Al-Sabah's editor and staff welcomed this. They did not want the paper to remain dependent on American financial aid or to be seen forever as the voice of the Coalition.
In March, a rival newspaper, the daily al-Mutamar (The Congress), published by the Iraqi National Congress and considered the mouthpiece for Ahmad Chalabi, criticized al- Sabah. Al-Mutamar charged that Iraqi government ministries unfairly subsidized al-Sabah by giving it exclusive contracts for government advertising. Yet however its competitors viewed it, al-Sabah was clearly the dominant paper, printing between 40,000 and 75,000 copies per day and claiming millions of hits on its website. Al-Sabah got a new printing press early this year, and was preparing to launch itself into the world of free media. Zayer and his staff were confident of their ability to publish on their own, gaining revenue from advertisers.
Then came bad news. On March 20, the Coalition issued Decree Number 66, signed by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, turning the Iraqi Media Network into the Iraqi Public Service Broadcaster, a government media enterprise equivalent to the British Broadcasting Corporation. Zayer and the al-Sabah staff professed shock that, under the decree, their newspaper would become a state-owned newspaper, with no prospect of the promised privatization.
Around the same time, the upheaval in Falluja and the confrontations between the Coalition and rebels elsewhere in Iraq were making their work--given their reputation as Coalition apologists--especially dangerous. Three al-Sabah workers were killed, five bombings were attempted and prevented at the al-Sabah building in the Baghdad district of al-Qahera, and Zayer himself was the target of two murder plots, according to the Washington Post. Even printers and drivers working for the paper were threatened.
Before announcing their attempt at independence, al-Sabah had published a detailed critique of the media laws set to be imposed in Iraq. Coalition Decree Number 65, also issued March 20, for example, had established an Iraqi Communications and Media Commission. This body would regulate all "telecommunications and telecommunications-related information services," including print media, broadcasting, coverage of elections, mobile telephone services, Internet providers, and Internet cafés. The commission, which would issue licenses for all such enterprises, was to be supported by an array of chairmanships, boards, and panels.
In an editorial, al-Sabah described the commission as "bigger and more powerful than Iraq's former Ministry of Information--a state within the state." The newspaper continued, "This Commission will be lawmaker, prosecutor, and judge, technical engineer and moral guardian of the interests of, for example, children (against too much violence on television) and consumers (against fraudulent advertising)....[I]n order to be prosecutor and judge, this Commission will need considerable staff to monitor television and radio programs and read the newspapers and weeklies."
With so many print organs already in existence, al-Sabah's editorialists were justified in asking how the commission would find time to keep track of the press. Al-Sabah blamed this unwieldy plan on Simon Haselock, the British official named media commissioner by the Coalition in August 2003. The decree making al-Sabah part of the Iraqi Public Service Broadcaster also comprised the creation of another whole set of governorships, boards, committees, and related bodies.
In all this, three things should be obvious. The first is that imposing a massive bureaucratic apparatus on top of Iraqi media is a disincentive to independent reporting, entrepreneurial investment, and other essentials for media success in the free market.
The second is that these offices, boards, and other bodies will instantly become centers of political patronage and corruption, regardless of safeguards written into their constitutional documents.
The third and overarching fact is that this is no way to cure the Iraqis, or any other Arab society, of the statist legacy of the Baathist dictatorship.
After Ismael Zayer and his staff walked out of the al-Sabah offices, the Washington Post quoted the man left behind to run the paper for the Coalition--Maher Faisal, a veteran of al-Jumhuriya (The Republic), one of Saddam's newspapers--as saying, "These exiles have nothing to teach Iraqis. We can work without them." The message was: Iraqis who learned how media operate in free societies should not try to import their knowledge into the new Iraq.
This gets it precisely backwards. In their editorial criticizing the establishment of the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission, the al-Sabah journalists candidly admitted that "in Iraq irresponsible journalism is the norm, not the exception." But the solution to low journalistic standards in the new Iraq is straightforward:
* Iraq needs a free press, in the spirit of the First Amendment.
* Alleged abuses of press freedom should be addressed under a strong libel law along American lines when these abuses involve persons, and by enforcement of public order when it can be shown that media are inciting violence. Incitement to violence is not protected speech in the United States, and should not be in Iraq.
* Newspapers, radio stations, television channels, movie companies, Internet providers, Internet cafés, cell-phone operators, and all other forms of communications enterprise should be encouraged to succeed or fail according to the markets they serve. No subsidies should be required in a country that, almost immediately after its liberation, generated countless new media organs. Iraqis have the resources and the will to create flourishing media.
* The licensing of radio and TV frequencies should be a neutral function administered by a small commission with a minimal staff, with no oversight over content. Broadcast content, like print news, can be regulated through libel law and enforcement of public order. Regarding children's exposure to violence through television, parents can be trusted to make choices.
* Foreign media experts should mentor, advise, and teach. They should not administer media, or write laws governing them, or issue licenses for media employees or investors.
* Iraqi journalists, like free journalists everywhere, should be encouraged to engage in a vigorous discussion among themselves and with the public of what responsible journalism is in a self-governing society. Adherence to high standards should remain a matter of personal and professional commitment, not submission to regulators or the police.
It is often said that the Coalition in Iraq needs a voice of its own. That is true: It should express its views at frequent press conferences open to all reporters. A vigorous, free press is the best possible place to begin the real democratization of Iraq.