June 10, 2003
is often said of the Palestinians, and not without justice, that
they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Something
similar might be said of the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq, now
fretting and fuming about the difficulties of establishing order
and security in a country just beginning to feel its oats after
decades of brutal totalitarian rule.
after all those decades some of the Iraqi media are rambunctious
to the point of being close to irresponsible or peddling lies or
disinformation. So one newspaper reprints the hoary and discredited
"Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and another runs a headline
that says – gasp! – "Under America's watch: raping, killing,
burning, looting"? What a marvelous opportunity to teach by
example and inaction that a society can survive occasional media
irresponsibility – even wholesale lying or making things up, as
happened recently at the venerable New York Times – and somehow
manage to survive. The important thing is that all media have the
freedom to pursue truth in their own way.
there's anything that might be useful to the development of a more
robust civil society from all this, it might be to hold up irresponsible
media reports as an example of the need for informed citizens to
be skeptical not only about government statements but about the
media as well. That's a pretty good, perhaps even essential foundation
for a society that aspires to anything resembling democracy or liberty.
course, the occupation forces missed the opportunity, and if anything
did the precise opposite of anything minimally useful.
FOR A CRACKDOWN
United States occupation forces instead chose a profoundly peculiar
way to teach Iraq about the glories of democracy. The Coalition
Provisional Authority is hard at work on a code
of conduct for those exuberant Iraqi media. We're all for freedom
and democracy, you see, but they have to be controlled – not by
Iraqi voters or even Iraqi interest groups, but by foreign occupation
forces endowed with supernatural wisdom and judgment – and access
to tanks and guns.
U.S. and international bureaucrats really know best. How can a democratic
society emerge if the press is free enough to be sometimes irresponsible?
as one Mike Furlong, a senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional
Authority told the Associated Press: "There's no room for hateful
and destabilizing messages that will destroy the emerging Iraqi
democracy. All media outlets must be responsible."
did not make that up. I promise you.
isn't just ambitious bureaucrats in occupation offices in Baghdad
who are dreaming up ways to exert control over Iraqi media. A group
of purported legal and media experts have met in Greece under the
auspices of the U.S. State Department to develop a code of conduct
for the Iraqi media. Among the ideas: pass laws with penalties for
hate speech, defamation or incitement to violence, set up a council
to draw up a code of conduct, hear complaints and regulate the media.
much imagination there, however. The Athens-based group would not
require licenses for newspapers, magazines and individual journalists,
just for the electronic media. Why the differentiation? More than
likely because that's the way it happened in the United States.
Accidents of history and incidents of effective propagandizing become
the standard by which other countries are judged. Who needs logic
or rethinking of the issues?
Mehta, a coalition spokesman, said the code-makers in Baghdad didn't
want to censor the media. They just want to, as AP put it, "stifle
intemperate speech that could incite violence and hinder efforts
to build a civil society." He also said that while he wasn't
aware of the efforts of the group in Greece, "there's no reason
why that can't feed into our work." Would-be censors can use
all the ideas they can get on how to suppress the ideas of other
this impulse to censor the media – and let us be clear, when a government
or de facto government entity exerts control and imposes penalties
on a media outlet, that is censorship – is hardly new. In fact,
it is likely that the mechanisms for developing a code of conduct
for media and implementing official censorship were in place long
before any Iraqi media outlet did anything that could be interpreted
as irresponsible or an incitement to violence. These US/international
bureaucrats have some practice at trying to rein in journalists,
and they're inclined to view control by proper authorities as a
positive good rather than an unspeakable outrage.
occupation of Bosnia and Kosovo, which is still ongoing, has featured
similar efforts to control the media by writing codes of conduct
and establishing penalties for journalists or media outlets that
run afoul of the governing authorities (as well as blatant efforts
to manipulate elections). In April 1998, as detailed in Fool's
Errands by Gary Dempsey and Roger Fontaine, the Bosnian
Office of the High Representative (isn't it fascinating what bloated
titles these pompous pipsqueaks create for themselves?) created
a media commission with the power to shut down or fine radio stations,
television stations or newspapers it decided were engaging in reporting
or editorializing that would hinder the implementation of the sacrosanct
Independent Media Commission (!) was headed by a non-Bosnian and
funded mostly by the United States. In April 1999 it ordered Kanal
S TV in Republika Srpska off the air after it aired an appeal from
Sarajevo University students requesting fellow citizens to join
them in protests against NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia. The IMC
also mandated that certain officially-approved "news"
would have to be covered. It ordered Bosnian Serb television to
carry an address by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (remember
her?) defending NATO actions.
the April 2000 municipal elections, the IMC found five Bosnian TV
broadcasters in violation of its holy "Code on Media Rules
in Elections" and fined them. During the run-up to October
2000 elections, the occupation authorities dismissed the board of
governors of the main Bosnian Serb television station and installed
a new board.
international bureaucrats working hand-in-glove with U.S. international
workers have a certain amount of experience at media censorship
– systematic and unapologetic, imposed in the name of upholding
"international standards." The floating assemblage of
international bureaucrats on the make that constitute what most
media choose to call the "international community" has
never been shy about believing it has superior wisdom and the right
to impose it upon benighted provincials everywhere.
conviction that the way to establish "democracy" is to
begin with detailed rules, regulations, codes, and commissions of
enforcers should also give us an insight into the way many American
officials who work in other countries would operate in this country
if there were no pesky First Amendment and long tradition of press
freedom to get in their way. If their first impulse in another country
is to regulate the media, do you suppose they don't secretly wish
they could do it at home?
of the media by international bodies, of course, is hardly a new
aspiration. Back in the 1980s it was UNESCO, the UN agency, that
wanted an international code of conduct and international licensing.
The issue then was the contention by some third world countries
that the international western press consisted mainly of roving
journalists who went from one violent crisis to another and never
put conflicts in context or stayed around to report on the marvelous
development initiatives various governments were pushing. As a result
the western world got a skewed vision of third world countries and
might be inclined not to appreciate their problems and triumphs
was something to this criticism, of course, but the sensible response
is "welcome to reality." Any organization with anything
other than a limitless budget is going to have to make choices,
and the result will be that it skimps on certain things. To try
to solve it through an international licensing, supervisory and
monitoring agency (with power to impose punitive penalties) is not
only subversive of the idea of press freedom, it would probably
have had perverse effects. Rather than work under such rigors, many
news organizations would have cut back on international coverage
even more, leaving perhaps one or two international press agencies,
fewer journalists available to have the time to try to soak up a
little context, and even worse coverage in the end.
bad ideas designed to increase centralized power never seem to die.
The UNESCO proposal in the 1980s eventually died, but many of its
elements were applied in Bosnia, and now the American occupiers
want to apply them in Iraq. If they are successful they will send
the message worldwide, through actions, which are more eloquent
than words, that what the United States means by a "free press"
in a "democracy" is a press strictly controlled by the
government, forbidden to say anything controversial or offensive,
and safely on a government leash.
course, looking at the lapdog media who inhabit the Imperial City,
perhaps you can't blame these budding bureaucrats for thinking that
being safe promoters of the government and working more often to
squelch dissent than to encourage it is the natural function of
a "free" press. Unfortunately, it's one of the possible
outcomes. A free press is free to be bad or inadequate.
wannabe press overlords should fold up their tents and slink home.
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