by Jim Lobe
A leading U.S.-based press watchdog says it is "deeply disturbed" by a directive issued last week by the Iraqi interim government’s new media commission that warned the press operating in Iraq to reflect the government’s position in fighting by U.S., coalition, and Iraqi forces against insurgents. The warning came in a statement released Thursday by the government’s Higher Media Commission (HMC), which was created by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last summer and is headed by a senior member of Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord (INA) party, Ibrahim Janabi, a former intelligence agent for ousted President Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.
Citing the 60-day state of emergency declared by Allawi on the eve of the U.S. offensive against insurgents in Fallujah, the HMC directive said news media must differentiate between "innocent citizens" of the city and the insurgents.
It warned that journalists should not attach "patriotic descriptions to groups of killers and criminals," and urged the media to "set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear."
"You must be precise and objective in handling news and information," according to the statement, which was reported by Associated Press and Reuters. "We hope you comply … otherwise we regret we will be forced take all the legal measures to guarantee higher national interests," it said, without elaboration.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPA) said it was "deeply disturbed" by the statement.
"We are very troubled by this directive, which is an attempt to control news coverage through government coercion," said CPJ’s executive director, Ann Cooper. "It damages the government’s credibility in establishing a free and democratic society."
CPJ recalled that the commission was created shortly before the Qatar-based satellite television station al-Jazeera was barred for one month from newsgathering in Iraq, although it was not clear that the commission had a role in that decision. The ban against al-Jazeera has since been extended indefinitely.
The existence of the HMC was first disclosed in the international press by the Financial Times, which reported that the panel was planning to move into "the old information ministry building, which is undergoing refurbishment," amid hopeful speculation by former employees of the ministry that they may reclaim jobs that had been axed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) last year.
At the time, Janabi told the Times that the state broadcasting company would be absorbed by the HMC, which would also advise an independent media committee established by the CPA. The HMC’s specific responsibilities have not yet been publicly established, however, and its directive last week bore the letterhead of Allawi’s office.
The language of the HMC statement suggested that the order was tied to the 60-day state of emergency that applies to all of Iraq except the northern Kurdish provinces.
When the HMC was first announced, both CPJ and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed concern. The latter suggested that the commission may have been set up to ban "certain criticism of the prime minister."
Both groups wrote to Allawi, asking him to "clarify the role and functions" of the commission and "ensure that any official regulation of the media conforms with international standards for a free press."
At the time, Allawi’s spokesman, George Sada, said without elaboration that it was created "to organize the work of the media."
Several months before, the government had temporary banned both al-Jazeera and another Arab satellite station, al-Arabiya, from working in the country.
In mid-July, on the other hand, Allawi issued a directive permitting the reopening of al-Hawza, a controversial weekly magazine linked to Moqtada Sadr, which had been closed by the CPA the previous March. Its closure helped spark a month of violence by Sadr’s Mehdi militia against the occupation forces in predominantly Shi’a southern part of the country and in Sadr City, a district of some 2 million people in Baghdad.
While the Iraqi press has enjoyed unprecedented freedom since Hussein’s ouster, it has also found itself under great pressure from a range of interests, including political parties, the interim government, insurgents, and coalition forces themselves.
Nearly 50 journalists and media professionals have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, although most died in combat situations. Several have been kidnapped, others detained and, in some cases, mistreated by armed groups, including coalition forces.
On Saturday, the Syrian driver and interpreter, Mohammed Al-Joundi, for two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot, who were kidnapped more than a month ago, was discovered by U.S. forces in a building in Fallujah where he had apparently been held since the kidnap.
He said, however, that he had been separated from the two reporters at the time of his capture and did not know their fate.
Jim Lobe is Inter Press Service’s correspondent in Washington, DC.