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Iraqi Govâ€TMt Shuts Down Aljazeera; Former Spy Heads New Media Board

by Chris Shumway

Behind the closure of Aljazeera's Baghdad offices lies a shadowy "Media Commission" charged by the interim government with protecting Iraqis from the news media and run by a former Ba'ath Party foreign operative.

Aug. 9, 2004 – International media watchdogs say Iraq’s US-installed interim government is seriously undermining the prospects for press freedom in the war-torn country. Citing both the shut down of Aljazeera’s Baghdad office last weekend and a series of recent policies enacted by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, critics fear that Iraq’s media environment is in danger of becoming as stifling as it was under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

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In a statement posted on its web site, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based organization that monitors media censorship worldwide, demanded an immediate explanation for the closing of Aljazeera’s office. "We are extremely concerned about persistent episodes of censorship in Iraq," the statement said, pointing out that the former US-backed Iraqi Governing Council had banned Aljazeera from attending official government events earlier this year.

At a news conference Saturday, Allawi said that Aljazeera was being shut down for one month because the network’s reporting incited violence and hatred. Allawi’s Interior Minister, Falah Al-Naqib, was more specific, referring to Aljazeera’s airing of videotaped statements reportedly made by insurgents and gangs holding foreign workers hostage. In some cases, the videotapes showed what appeared to be the beheadings of hostages. "They have been showing a lot of crimes and criminals on TV, and they transfer a bad picture about Iraq and Iraqis and encourage criminals to increase their activities," Al-Naqib said.

While acknowledging that such imagery may be gruesome and that broadcasting it repeatedly amounts to irresponsible sensationalism, some Middle East analysts argue that imposing sanctions on Aljazeera is a big mistake.

William Fisher, a former US State Department official who says he is "not a big fan of Aljazeera," also says shutting down the network won’t solve Iraq’s political problems or improve security conditions. "The way to stop the media from presenting pictures of prisoners being humiliated, or hostages being beheaded, is not to shoot the messenger; it is to stop the abuses," Fisher wrote in an editorial published by the Arab News, a Saudi Arabian newspaper.

According to an Associated Press report, Iraqi police officials enforced the government’s order against Aljazeera Saturday night by locking the network’s newsroom and ordering the staff out of the building.

Haider Al-Mullah, a lawyer for Aljazeera, told the AP that the network would respect the decision but would also study its legal options. A spokesperson for Aljazeera, Jihad Ballot, said, "This decision runs contrary to all the promises made by Iraqi authorities concerning freedom of expression and freedom of the press." Ballot also said that despite the closure, Aljazeera would continue reporting from Iraq as best it could.

The closing comes two weeks after top officials in Allawi’s government threatened to shut down Aljazeera and other regional media outlets if they continued to broadcast messages by extremist militants or statements that are highly critical of the government.

Such restrictions appear to be the work of a newly established "Higher Media Commission," which Allawi reportedly set up to monitor and regulate media content. In confirming the order to close Aljazeera, Allawi told a news conference that a media commission had been convened a month ago to monitor the network’s coverage "to see what kind of violence they are advocating," the AP reports.

According to the Financial Times, Ibrahim Janabi, the man appointed by Allawi to head the commission, announced on July 26 that the panel would impose content restrictions on both print and broadcast journalists. The restrictions, to be called "red lines," would include a ban on printing or broadcasting unwarranted criticism of Allawi himself. As an example of content that would violate this particular rule, Janabi singled out an Aljazeera broadcast of a sermon by rebel Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr in which he referred to Allawi as America’s "tail."

Janabi said that due to the "difficult security situation" in Iraq, the new press restrictions were necessary. "We need to fight the terrorists by all means," he added, "and one of the main means is the media. We need them all to cooperate, even the private sector. It’s for national security."

Responding to Janabi’s statements, the International Federation of Journalists urged Iraqi officials to resist the urge to censor the media. "Democracy in Iraq will be won by defending human rights and the people’s right to know, not by returning to the bad old days of censorship and intimidation of journalists," said Aidan White, the organization’s General Secretary.

Joel Campagna, a program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists made a similar argument, referring specifically to Aljazeera’s efforts to bring independent journalism to a part of the world that has not experienced much of it. "To be sure, there are valid criticisms to be made about Aljazeera's biases and, at times, its sensationalism," Campagna wrote in an editorial published by the International Herald Tribune. "But lost in the criticism is that Aljazeera is also a serious news organization whose reporting is regularly cited by the best news organizations."

In addition to imposing content restrictions, Janabi’s panel will have authority over the Iraqi Communications & Media Commission (ICMC), a body established in March by former US civilian administrator Paul Bremer, the Financial Times reports. The ICMC was initially set up to issue commercial telephone and broadcast licenses, as well as work with newspapers to develop a voluntary code of ethics for the industry. But it’s not clear exactly what its duties will be now that the new media commission has been established.

By creating the new commission, Allawi also appears to be reviving Saddam’s old Ministry of Information, which strictly controlled the Iraqi press for decades. Although Bremer dissolved the ministry last year, officials with the Higher Media Commission will soon relocate to the old Ministry of Information offices, which are being refurbished.

The Financial Times also reports that, according to Janabi, the Iraqia broadcast network -- Saddam’s former radio/TV operation, re-organized last year by the Coalition and now run by US-based Harris Corporation -- will also be placed under the new commission’s control.

The planned restructuring of the network does not sit well with some journalists who had hoped that Iraqia would eventually become an independent broadcast service. "I am afraid we will now be a channel controlled by the state," an unnamed editor from Iraqia told the FT. "All the signs are they [Allawi’s government] want to use this as their mouthpiece."

Other factors, including Janabi’s own background, suggest that the interim government favors a centralized, state-run media system that has little, if any, room for dissidents.

Like Allawi, Janabi was for many years a Ba’ath Party member. He also worked as an overseas intelligence officer for Saddam Hussein. According to a 2003 article in the New York Review of Books, Janabi served Saddam as an undercover agent in London during the 1980s, monitoring the dictator’s political opponents there. "My cover was to be a graduate student in information science," Janabi told journalist Tim Judah.

In the 1990s, Janabi defected and joined Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord (INA), an exile group with close ties to the CIA and British intelligence services. According to Judah and a 2002 report in the Scotsman, Janabi was the INA’s point man in Amman, Jordan during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq last year.

Given his new, far-reaching duties and authority over news content, Janabi, a man with no background in journalism but plenty of experience as a covert government agent, may now be the most powerful media figure within Iraq.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Chris Shumway is a contributing journalist.

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