The Magazine

Free the Iraqi Press!

From the May 17, 2004 issue: The last thing they need in Baghdad is another statist medium.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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.