Iraq sets up committee to impose restrictions on news reporting
by Nicolas Pelham in Baghdad
Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s prime minister, has established a media committee to impose restrictions on print and broadcast media, a government official announced yesterday. The step underlines an aggressive new attitude towards press freedoms, in spite of US efforts to nurture independent media.
Ibrahim Janabi, appointed to head the new Higher Media Commission, told the FT the restrictions – known as “red lines” – had yet to be finalised, but would include unwarranted criticism of the prime minister. He singled out last Friday’s sermon by Moqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shia cleric, who mocked Mr Allawi as America’s “tail”.
Outlets that broadcast the sermon could be banned, he said.
The formation of Mr Janabi’s committee appears to mark a step back from Washington’s democratic vision for postwar Iraq. Before last month’s handover of sovereignty, US officials boasted that Iraq enjoyed the Arab world’s least regulated media. One of Paul Bremer’s first acts as US administrator was to abolish the information ministry, prompting a profusion of non-government newspapers, radio stations and television stations to emerge.
Mr Janabi said his committee would soon relocate to the old information ministry building, which is undergoing refurbishment.
Many of the old information ministry’s 5,000 former employees have welcomed Mr Janabi’s commission as a first step to regaining their jobs axed by Mr Bremer. One of Mr Janabi’s first decisions was to extend payment of their salaries to last month.
But Mr Janabi sought to damp fears that he was reviving the old pre-war information ministry, which controlled all media outlets in Iraq before the US-led invasion. He said he would not introduce minders for foreign journalists, but there would be a voluntary registration process.
The measures come amid growing government nervousness that Arab satellite channels are giving publicity to Iraq’s rebel groups. Yesterday Iraq’s foreign minister, Hosheyr Zebari, denounced the Arabic satellite channel, al-Jazeera, which has broadcast video recordings it received from insurgents.
“In a difficult security situation, we need to fight the terrorists by all means, and one of the main means is the media. We need them all to co-operate, even the private sector. It’s for national security,” said Mr Janabi, a former Iraqi intelligence officer who for a decade served as Mr Allawi’s eyes and ears in neighbouring Jordan, but has never worked as a journalist. “The red lines must be very clear. Whenever we find someone endangering national security, we will give notes to our legal committee that they are breaking the rules,” he said.
Noting that al-Jazeera broadcast part of Mr Sadr’s anti-Allawi sermon, he warned: “If they do it again, we will give them two weeks to correct the policy, and after that we will tell them sorry we need to close your office.”
He also said that an independent media and communication committee established by Mr Bremer to regulate the broadcast media would continue to operate, although subject to his higher commission’s advice.
The coalition-appointed board of governors for the state broadcaster, Iraqia, was also being absorbed into his committee, Mr Janabi said, although under pressure from London and Washington final arrangements have yet to be ironed out.
Harris, the American contractor chosen by the Coalition Provisional Authority to run Iraqia, could also lose its $96m (&euro79m, ?52m) annual contract, if its broadcasts wavered from “the targets we want”, said Mr Janabi.
A current affairs editor at Iraqia, who requested anonymity, criticised the move: “I am afraid we will now be a channel controlled by the state,” he said, “all the signs are they want to use this as their mouthpiece.”
Opposition politicians also attacked the new body, saying that Mr Allawi had established committees for oil and security, as well as the media, in a bid to get total control of the state machinery.
Allies of Mr Allawi, however, pointed to his decision last week to reverse a US-led coalition ban on Mr Sadr’s newspaper, al-Hauza, as evidence of his commitment to press freedom.