The Blog

A Bad Move in Baghdad

Simon Haselock has been appointed the new media commissioner in Iraq. It's bad news for the free Iraqi media.

12:00 PM, Aug 20, 2003 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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THE ANNOUNCEMENT that Simon Haselock has been appointed "media commissioner" for Iraq is bad news for a free Iraqi media. I know Simon extremely well and like him, but there is good cause for considering his appointment to the country's top media administrative position a mistake.

Simon Haselock comes to Iraq from similar postings in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. In neither country was his career marked by success in supporting local media.

In Sarajevo, Haselock served as media spokesman for the Office of the High Representative, the European agency governing the Bosnians in the aftermath of the Dayton Agreement. In Kosovo, he became media commissioner.

The problem, in a nutshell: He's British, and holds to a European view of how media should work, in terms of public responsibility, free expression, libel law, and similar issues. Haselock and others like him attempted to impose a European media regime on the Bosnian and Kosovar journalists, and there is every indication the same effort will be made in Iraq.

Put simply, this means that a governmental body will supervise media. It has already been reported that Haselock has written a proposal for control of broadcast and print media, including the establishment of state electronic media and the appointment of a board that will handle "complaints about media excesses" and levy fines for misconduct. These are exactly, down to the boilerplate vocabulary, the policies that were tried in Sarajevo and Prishtina. They failed miserably, and sometimes grotesquely.

IN BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, the stated mission of foreign media administrators embodied pure political correctness: It was to separate media from nationalist self-expression and political parties. This meant that although Bosnian Muslims felt they had survived a deliberate attempt at genocide, and while Serbs and Croats felt they had legitimate communal demands to put forward, their journalists were forbidden from dealing with these topics. The argument of the "internationals," as the foreigners in the Balkans love to style themselves, was that any such commentary would constitute hate speech and would incite further violence.

This policy was not only foolish, given the recent tragic history of the country, but also hypocritical. Nowhere else in Europe are aggrieved national communities--the Basques in Spain or the Celts in the U.K., to name the most obvious examples--forbidden from expressing their demands. Terrorism in these neighborhoods has not been viewed as a pretext for wholesale censorship. Furthermore, no other European country forbids media ownership by, or alignment with, political parties.

Bosnian television, in particular, has been subjected to harsh exactions, including a stated policy that the country had "too many" stations. Foreign administrators did not notice that Bosnia is extremely mountainous and that local stations were the cheapest way to quickly establish a media system. Instead, vast sums of foreign pelf were strewn far and wide, with the goal of fostering "public broadcasting."

The most infamous example was something called the Open Broadcast Network (OBN)--an experiment on which the United States and the European Union together wasted $17 million. The OBN, a multi-culti television network, failed after being handed off $9 million by the United States.

An enormous amount of American money was also misapplied to "training" Bosnian journalists, many of whom had survived the war while working under fire. It always seemed to me that such media heroes might have more to teach certain American journalists than vice versa.

Admittedly, Bosnians had, and still have, a problem with the legacy of Tito-era Communist journalism. Reporting often masks political agendas: Rumors are described as fact, and party lines affect the news. But American-funded programs helped replace stodgy Communist-era journalism with irresponsible post-Communist tabloid sensationalism, in which stars of the prewar media regime often, as they had in the past, used their positions as clubs to beat their opponents and critics.

Finally, the ambitions of foreigners to "develop" Bosnian media led to de facto U.S. subsidies for numerous periodicals, some of them disreputable. This was easy to do since postwar Bosnia remains financially ruined, and there is little money available for independent, local media enterprises.

IN KOSOVO, the Albanian journalists had a different legacy. Albanians had been excluded from the Communist power system as Yugoslavia crumbled, and numerous journalists had emerged as defenders of civic conscience. In addition, unlike Bosnian journalists, some of the brightest Albanian reporters and editors had worked in Western Europe, where they improved their professional skills.

Further, Albanian journalism in Kosovo is not so economically disadvantaged. Albanians have a more prosperous diaspora that has provided significant economic assets to independent media. Kosovar journalists do not go begging the foreign agencies for subsidies.

But Kosovo also came up against the obsession of the foreign powers with the establishment of new media that would eschew any nationalist vocabulary and thus, allegedly, promote reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs--a will o' the wisp if there ever was one.

In both cases, Simon Haselock's job was, put bluntly, to cram these policies down the throats of local journalists, who remained resentful and reduced in their professional effectiveness in Sarajevo, and recalcitrant and rhetorically excitable (more about the foreigners than the Serbs) in Kosovo.

To repeat these failed experiments in Iraq is a recipe for failure. In Iraq, by contrast to the Balkan countries, we in the coalition countries have a larger responsibility--not only to the local inhabitants, but to our troops who gave their lives for the liberation of the Iraqi people. Iraqi media deserves a chance to function freely and entrepreneurially, in the spirit of our own First Amendment, with expression curbed only in cases of direct incitement of violence and libel. The first problem can be handled by good public security, and the second by the courts. In such a context, there is no need for special commissions, elaborate training, or worst of all, state-run media. All of this was tried in Britain, and the BBC is now known as the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation. Iraq doesn't need another such institution.

Let Iraqi journalism flourish, with as many newspapers and broadcasters as can survive in the marketplace, and let Iraq journalists learn as they work.

Stephen Schwartz went to the Balkans after Dayton as a representative of the International Federation of Journalists, and remains an adviser to the Kosovo Association of Journalists. He published two books in 2000 dealing with media issues in the Balkans: "A Dishonest 20th Century Comedy," printed in Sarajevo, and "Kosovo: Background to a War," which appeared in Britain. He is also the author of "The Two Faces of Islam."