By Robert Fisk
BAGHDAD, 12 June 2003 (The Independent) Paul Bremer has ordered his legal department in Baghdad to draw up rules for press censorship. A joke, I concluded, when one of the newly-styled Coalition Provisional Authority officials tipped me off last week. But no, it really is true.
Two months after liberating Iraq, the Anglo-American authorities and their boss Paul Bremer whose habit of wearing combat boots with a black suit continues to amaze his colleagues have decided to control the new and free Iraqi press. Newspapers which publish wild stories, material deemed provocative or capable of inciting ethnic violence will be threatened or shut down.
Its for the good of the Iraqi people, you understand. A controlled press is a responsible press which is exactly what Saddam Hussein used to say about the trashy newspapers his regime produced. It must seem all too familiar to the people of Baghdad.
Now lets be fair. Many stories in the emerging newspapers of Baghdad are untrue. There is no tradition of checking reports, of giving opponents the opportunity to be heard. There are constant articles about the behavior of American troops. One paper has claimed that US soldiers distributed postcards of naked women to schoolgirls they even published the pictures, with Japanese script on the cards. Even the most cynical Westerner can see how this kind of lie can stir up sentiment against Iraqs new foreign occupiers.
The people of Iraq have fallen, Waleed Rabia, a 19-year-old student, wrote in the new paper Al-Mujaha. Invaders are in our country. The wild animals of this jungle called a world are trying to rip us apart. Weve been through hard times under the old regime, but we were better then than we are now...Look at those girls who are having sex with the Americans in their tanks, or in the bathrooms of the Palestine Hotel...What about those Muslim girls marrying Christian foreigners? No one can accept this as a true Muslim or true Iraqi... It isnt difficult to understand the fury that this kind of article might arouse and the idea that the Anglo-American presence is as awful as Saddams torturers betrays a truly eccentric mind though it would help if certain Iraqi police officers were not admitting that they were arranging dates for US troops.
What the Iraqis need, of course, is journalistic help rather than censorship, courses in reporting by experienced journalists from real democracies (rather than the version Bremer seems set on creating) rather than a colonial-style suppression of free speech, which is what censorship will become. But were now hearing that imams in the mosques may be censored if they provoke unrest this would obviously include the imam of the Rashid Street mosque in Baghdad outside of which I heard him preaching last week.
The Americans must leave, he said. Immediately. Subversive stuff. Definitely likely to provoke violence. So good-bye in due course, I suppose to the Rashid Street imam. And of course, we all know how the first pro-American Iraqi government of New Iraq will treat the laws. They will enthusiastically adopt the Western censorship law, just as former colonies almost always take over the repressive legislation of their former imperial masters.
I can obviously see the kind of stories that must be, at the least, discouraged. Take last weeks extraordinary UN announcement mercifully ignored in most of the Western press that Afghanistan is once more the worlds No. 1 producer of opium. The hateful Taleban banned all poppy production under their vicious rule, cutting off the Northern Alliance warlords from their narcotics production. But since Americas success in routing the Taleban, the drug barons the very same Northern Alliance lads who were US allies in the war on terror have gone back into business. Not one American official dares to comment on this shameful fact. Quite a memorial to the thousands who died in the international crimes against humanity of Sept. 11, 2001.
As for the Iraqis, what lessons are they to draw? If the Americans can let the narco-terrorists rule again in Afghanistan, why should they be any more moral in Baghdad where drugs are reappearing for sale on the streets, courtesy you guessed it of the Afghan drugs trade. So censor the story.
Then we have German UN arms inspector, Peter Franck, telling Der Spiegel magazine that Colin Powells evidence of Saddams weapons of mass destruction which he presented to the UN Security Council in February was merely a big bluff. Former UN inspector Scott Ritter who all along told audiences before the war that Saddam had no WMDs appears to have been telling the truth. Saddam, he says, couldnt have destroyed weapons of mass destruction without leaving traces. So much for Donald Rumsfelds cheerful suggestion that the Iraqi dictator had got rid of his nasties just before the Americans and British staged their illegal invasion. Britain and the United States should admit they lied, Ritter now suggests. Censor the story.
Out at Baghdad airport, the Americans are now holding 3,000 prisoners without any intention of putting them on trial or charging them with offenses. Where is Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister? The Americans say they have him. But we dont know where. Whats he being asked? About Saddams weapons of mass destruction? Or my own guess how much he knows about Americas close relations with Saddam after 1978? In fact, Aziz knows far too much about that shameful alliance; after all, he met Donald Rumsfeld several times. One things for sure. Theyll be no trial for Tariq Aziz. Keeping him silent will be the first priority. But thats not something the Iraqis should learn about. Censor the story.
While were still on the subject of Baghdad Airport, its important to note that American forces at the facility are now coming under attack every night I repeat, every night from small arms fire. So are American military planes flying into the airbase. The pilots have seen the gunfire directed at them some US air crews have now adopted the old Vietnam tactic of corks crewing tightly down onto the runways instead of risking sniper fire during a conventional final approach. The source is impeccable (its within the Third Infantry Division, if the int. boys want to know). But what will that tell the Iraqis? That the Americans cannot keep order? That a resistance movement is well under way? Censor the story.
Then we have Paul Wolfowitz or Wolfie, as George Bush likes to call him blowing the whistle on Americas motives for the invasion of Iraq. Asked at a Singapore conference why the (real) threat of North Korean nuclear weapons was being treated differently from Iraqs (less real) threat, Wolfie was reported in Die Welt to have given a truly revealing reply. Lets look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil. This, by the way, comes from the same man who told Vanity Fair that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on: Weapons of mass destruction.
For Iraqis, this is incendiary material. The one suspicion held in common by both Saddams former Baathists and Saddams bitterest opponents in Iraq is that Britain and America invaded their country, not because of chemical or biological or nuclear weapons, not because of human rights abuses, but for oil. Clearly, Wolfies words are highly provocative, could give valuable propaganda to Saddams remnants who are becoming as lethal as the now famous Taleban remnants and stir up disorder among the vast majority of peace-loving Iraqis who trust the Americans. Censor the story.
And what to print? Well, theres the charnel house of mass graves being discovered every day, the visits to the Saddamite torture rooms, the continued and uproarious memoirs of the man who claims to have been Saddams double anything, in fact, which will remind the people of how awful Saddam truly was and take their mind off what is really being done to their country. Bremer is trying to quick-fix his new consultative council of wise Iraqis prior to the famous democratic election which has been briefly postponed. And meanwhile hes fired a quarter of a million Iraqi soldiers from their jobs ready, no doubt, to join the nascent resistance movement. Yes, it truly is time for press censorship in Iraq.